Part 7 out of 7
The wind freezes the drops of sweat on our foreheads. It is near
midnight. For six hours now we have marched in the increasing burden
of the mud. This is the time when the Paris theaters are
constellated with electroliers and blossoming with lamps; when they
are filled with luxurious excitement, with the rustle of skirts,
with merrymaking and warmth; when a fragrant and radiant multitude,
chatting, laughing, smiling, applauding, expanding. feels itself
pleasantly affected by the cleverly graduated emotions which the
comedy evokes, and lolls in contented enjoyment of the rich and
splendid pageants of military glorification that crowd the stage of
"Aren't we there? Nom de Dieu, shan't we ever get there?" The groan
is breathed by the long procession that tosses about in these
crevices of the earth, carrying rifles and shovels and pickaxes
under the eternal torrent. We march and march. We are drunk with
fatigue, and roll to this side and that. Stupefied and soaked, we
strike with our shoulders a substance as sodden as ourselves.
"Halt!"--"Are we there?"--"Ah, yes, we're there!"
For the moment a heavy recoil presses us back and then a murmur runs
along: "We've lost ourselves." The truth dawns on the confusion of
the wandering horde. We have taken the wrong turn at some fork, and
it will be the deuce of a job to find the right way again.
Then, too, a rumor passes from mouth to mouth that a fighting
company on its way to the lines is coming up behind us. The way by
which we have come is stopped up with men. It is the block absolute.
At all costs we must try to regain the lost trench--which is alleged
to be on our left--by trickling through some sap or other. Utterly
wearied and unnerved, the men break into gesticulations and violent
reproaches. They trudge awhile, then drop their tools and halt. Here
and there are compact groups--you can glimpse them by the light of
the star-shells--who have let themselves fall to the ground.
Scattered afar from south to north, the troop waits in the merciless
The lieutenant who is in charge and has led us astray, wriggles his
way along the men in quest of some lateral exit. A little trench
appears, shallow and narrow.
"We most go that way, no doubt about it," the officer hastens to
say. "Come, forward, boys."
Each man sulkily picks up his burden. But a chorus of oaths and
curses rises from the first who enter the little sap: "It's a
A disgusting smell escapes from the trench, and those inside halt
butt into each other, and refuse to advance. We are all jammed
against each other and block up the threshold.
"I'd rather climb out and go in the open!" cries a man. But there
are flashes rending the sky above the embankments on all sides, and
the sight is so fearsome of these jets of resounding flame that
overhang our pit and its swarming shadows that no one responds to
the madman's saying.
Willing or unwilling, since we cannot go back, we must even take
that way. "Forward into the filth!" cries the leader of the troop.
We plunge in, tense with repulsion. Bullets are whistling over.
"Lower your heads!" The trench has little depth; one must stoop very
low to avoid being hit, and the stench becomes intolerable. At last
we emerge into the communication trench that we left in error. We
begin again to march. Though we march without end we arrive nowhere.
While we wander on, dumb and vacant, in the dizzy stupefaction of
fatigue, the stream which is running in the bottom of the trench
cleanses our befouled feet.
The roars of the artillery succeed each other faster and faster,
till they make but a single roar upon all the earth. From all sides
the gunfire and the bursting shells hurl their swift shafts of light
and stripe confusedly the black sky over our heads. The bombardment
then becomes so intense that its illumination has no break. In the
continuous chain of thunderbolts we can see each other clearly--our
helmets streaming like the bodies of fishes, our sodden leathers,
the shovel-blades black and glistening; we can even see the pale
drops of the unending rain. Never have I seen the like of it; in
very truth it is moonlight made by gunfire.
Together there mounts from our lines and from the enemy's such a
cloud of rockets that they unite and mingle in constellations; at
one moment, to light us on our hideous way, there was a Great Bear
of star-shells in the valley of the sky that we could see between
* * * * * *
We are lost again, and this time we must be close to the first
lines; but a depression in this part of the plain forms a sort of
basin, overrun by shadows. We have marched along a sap and then back
again. In the phosphorescent vibration of the guns, shimmering like
a cinematograph, we make out above the parapet two stretcher-bearers
trying to cross the trench with their laden stretcher.
The lieutenant, who at least knows the place where he should guide
the team of workers, questions them, "Where is the New
Trench?"--"Don't know." From the ranks another question is put to
them, "How far are we from the Boches?" They make no reply, as they
are talking among themselves.
"I'm stopping," says the man in front; "I'm too tired."
"Come, get on with you, nom de Dieu!" says the other in a surly tone
and floundering heavily, his arms extended by the stretcher. "We
can't step and rust here."
They put the stretcher down on the parapet, the edge of it
overhanging the trench, and as we pass underneath we can see the
prostrate man's feet. The rain which falls on the stretcher drains
from it darkened.
"Wounded?" some one asks down below.
"No, a stiff," growls the bearer this time, "and he weighs twelve
stone at least. Wounded I don't mind--for two days and two nights we
haven't left off carrying 'em--but it's rotten, breaking yourself up
with lugging dead men about." And the bearer, upright on the edge of
the bank, drops a foot to the base of the opposite bank across the
cavity, and with his legs wide apart, laboriously balanced, he grips
the stretcher and begins to draw it across, calling on his companion
to help him.
A little farther we see the stooping form of a hooded officer, and
as he raises his hand to his face we see two gold lines on his
sleeve. He, surely, will tell us the way. But he addresses us, and
asks if we have not seen the battery he is looking for. We shall
never get there!
But we do, all the same. We finish up in a field of blackness where
a few lean posts are bristling. We climb up to it, and spread out in
silence. This is the spot.
The placing of us is an undertaking. Four separate times we go
forward and then retire, before the company is regularly echeloned
along the length of the trench to be dug, before an equal interval
is left between each team of one striker and two shovelers. "Incline
three paces more--too much--one pace to the rear. Come, one pace to
the rear--are you deaf?--Halt! There!"
This adjustment is done by the lieutenant and a noncom. of the
Engineers who has sprung up out of the ground. Together or
separately they run along the file and give their muttered orders
into the men s ears as they take them by the arm, sometimes, to
guide them. Though begun in an orderly way, the arrangement
degenerates, thanks to the ill temper of the exhausted men, who must
continually be uprooting themselves from the spot where the
undulating mob is stranded.
"We're in front of the first lines," they whisper round me. "No."
murmur other voices, "we're just behind."
No one knows. The rain still falls, though less fiercely than at
some moments on the march. But what matters the rain! We have spread
ourselves out on the ground. Now that our backs and limbs rest in
the yielding mud, we are so comfortable that we are unconcerned
about the rain that pricks our faces and drives through to our
flesh, indifferent to the saturation of the bed that contains us.
But we get hardly time enough to draw breath. They are not so
imprudent as to let us bury ourselves in sleep. We must set
ourselves to incessant labor. It is two o'clock of the morning; in
four hours more it will be too light for us to stay here. There is
not a minute to lose.
"Every man," they say to us, "must dig five feet in length, two and
a half feet in width, and two and three-quarter feet in depth. That
makes fifteen feet in length for each team. And I advise you to get
into it; the sooner it's done, the sooner you'll leave."
We know the pious claptrap. It is not recorded in the annals of the
regiment that a trenching fatigue-party ever once got away before
the moment when it became absolutely necessary to quit the
neighborhood if they were not to be seen, marked and destroyed along
with the work of their hands.
We murmur, "Yes, yes--all right; it's not worth saying. Go easy."
But everybody applies himself to the job courageously, except for
some invincible sleepers whose nap will involve them later in
We attack the first layer of the new line--little mounds of earth,
stringy with grass. The ease and speed with which the work
begins--like all entrenching work in free soil--foster the illusion
that it will soon be finished, that we shall be able to sleep in the
cavities we have scooped: and thus a certain eagerness revives.
But whether by reason of the noise of the shovels, or because some
men are chatting almost aloud, in spite of reproofs, our activity
wakes up a rocket, whose flaming vertical line rattles suddenly on
"Lie down!" Every man flattens himself, and the rocket balances and
parades its huge pallor over a sort of field of the dead.
As soon as it is out one hears the men, in places and then all
along, detach themselves from their secretive stillness, get up, and
resume the task with more discretion.
Soon another star-shell tosses aloft its long golden stalk, and
still more brightly illuminates the flat and motionless line of
trenchmakers. Then another and another.
Bullets rend the air around us, and we hear a cry, "Some one
wounded!" He passes, supported by comrades. We can just see the
group of men who are going away, dragging one of their number.
The place becomes unwholesome. We stoop and crouch, and some are
scratching at the earth on their knees. Others are working full
length; they toil, and turn, and turn again, like men in nightmares.
The earth, whose first layer was light to lift, becomes muddy and
sticky; it is hard to handle, and clings to the tool like glue.
After every shovelful the blade must be scraped.
Already a thin heap of earth is winding along, and each man has the
idea of reinforcing the incipient breastwork with his pouch and his
rolled-up greatcoat, and he hoods himself behind the slender pile of
shadow when a volley comes--
While we work we sweat, and as soon as we stop working we are
pierced through by the cold. A spell seems to be cast on us,
paralyzing our arms. The rockets torment and pursue us, and allow us
but little movement. After every one of them that petrifles us with
its light we have to struggle against a task still more stubborn.
The hole only deepens into the darkness with painful and despairing
The ground gets softer; each shovelful drips and flows, and spreads
from the blade with a flabby sound. At last some one cries, "Water!"
The repeated cry travels all along the row of
diggers--"Water--that's done it!"
"Melusson's team's dug deeper, and there's water. They've
struck a swamp."--"No help for it."
We stop in confusion. In the bosom of the night we hear the sound of
shovels and picks thrown down like empty weapons. The non-coms. go
gropingly after the officer to get instructions. Here and there,
with no desire for anything better, some men are going deliciously
to sleep under the caress of the rain, under the radiant rockets.
* * * * * *
It was very nearly at this minute, as far as I can remember, that
the bombardment began again. The first shell fell with a terrible
splitting of the air, which seemed to tear itself in two; and other
whistles were already converging upon us when its explosion uplifted
the ground at the head of the detachment in the heart of the
magnitude of night and rain, revealing gesticulations upon a sudden
screen of red.
No doubt they had seen us, thanks to the rockets, and had trained
their fire on us.
The men hurled and rolled themselves towards the little flooded
ditch that they had dug, wedging, burying, and immersing themselves
in it, and placed the blades of the shovels over their heads. To
right, to left, in front and behind, shells burst so near that every
one of them shook us in our bed of clay; and it became soon one
continuous quaking that seized the wretched gutter, crowded with men
and scaly with shovels, under the strata of smoke and the falling
fire. The splinters and debris crossed in all directions with a
network of noise over the dazzling field. No second passed but we
all thought what some stammered with their faces in the earth,
"We're done, this time!"
A little in front of the place where I am. a shape has arisen and
cried, "Let's be off!" Prone bodies half rose out of the shroud of
mud that dripped in tails and liquid rags from their limbs, and
these deathful apparitions cried also, "Let's go!" They were on
their knees, on all-fours, crawling towards the way of retreat: "Get
on, allez, get on!"
But the long file stayed motionless, and the frenzied complaints
were in vain. They who were down there at the end would not budge,
and their inactivity immobilized the rest. Some wounded passed over
the others, crawling over them as over debris, and sprinkling the
whole company with their blood.
We discovered at last the cause of the maddening inactivity of the
detachment's tail--"There's a barrage fire beyond."
A weird imprisoned panic seized upon the men with cries inarticulate
and gestures stillborn. They writhed upon the spot. But little
shelter as the incipient trench afforded, no one dared leave the
ditch that saved us from protruding above the level of the ground,
no one dared fly from death towards the traverse that should be down
there. Great were the risks of the wounded who had managed to crawl
over the others, and every moment some were struck and went down
Fire and water fell blended everywhere. Profoundly entangled in the
supernatural din, we shook from neck to heels. The most hideous of
deaths was falling and bounding and plunging all around us in waves
of light, its crashing snatched our fearfulness in all
directions--our flesh prepared itself for the monstrous sacrifice!
In that tense moment of imminent destruction, we could only remember
just then how often we had already experienced it, how often
undergone this outpouring of iron, and the burning roar of it, and
the stench. It is only during a bombardment that one really recalls
those he has already endured.
And still, without ceasing, newly-wounded men crept over us, fleeing
at any price. In the fear that their contact evoked we groaned
again, "We shan't get out of this; nobody will get out of it."
Suddenly a gap appeared in the compressed humanity, and those behind
breathed again, for we were on the move.
We began by crawling, then we ran, bowed low in the mud and water
that mirrored the flashes and the crimson gleams, stumbling and
falling over submerged obstructions, ourselves resembling heavy
splashing projectiles, thunder-hurled along the ground. We arrive at
the starting-place of the trench we had begun to dig.
"There's no trench--there's nothing."
In truth the eye could discern no shelter in the plain where our
work had begun. Even by the stormy flash of the rockets we could
only see the plain, a huge and raging desert. The trench could not
be far away, for it had brought us here. But which way must we steer
to find it?
The rain redoubled. We lingered a moment in mournful disappointment,
gathered on a lightning-smitten and unknown shore--and then the
Some bore to the left, some to the right, some went straight
forward--tiny groups that one only saw for a second in the heart of
the thundering rain before they were separated by sable avalanches
and curtains of flaming smoke.
* * * * * *
The bombardment over our heads grew less; it was chiefly over the
place where we had been that it was increasing. But it might any
minute isolate everything and destroy it.
The rain became more and more torrential--a deluge in the night. The
darkness was so deep that the star-shells only lit up slices of
water-seamed obscurity, in the depths of which fleeing phantoms came
and went and ran round in circles.
I cannot say how long I wandered with the group with which I had
remained. We went into morasses. We strained our sight forward in
quest of the embankment and the trench of salvation, towards the
ditch that was somewhere there, as towards a harbor.
A cry of consolation was heard at last through the vapors of war and
the elements--"A trench!" But the embankment of that trench was
moving; it was made of men mingled in confusion, who seemed to be
coming out and abandoning it.
"Don't stay there, mates!" cried the fugitives; "clear off, don't
come near. It's hell--everything's collapsing--the trenches are
legging it and the dug-outs are bunged up--the mud's pouring in
everywhere. There won't be any trenches by the morning--it's all up
with them about here!"
They disappeared. Where? We forgot to ask for some little direction
from these men whose streaming shapes had no sooner appeared than
they were swallowed up in the dark.
Even our little group crumbled away among the devastation, no longer
knowing where they were. Now one, now another, faded into the night,
disappearing towards his chance of escape.
We climbed slopes and descended them. I saw dimly in front of me men
bowed and hunchbacked, mounting a slippery incline where mud held
them back, and the wind and rain repelled them under a dome of
Then we flowed back, and plunged into a marsh up to our knees. So
high must we lift our feet that we walked with a sound of swimming.
Each forward stride was an enormous effort which slackened in agony.
It was there that we felt death drawing near. But we beached
ourselves at last on a sort of clay embankment that divided the
swamp. As we followed the slippery back of this slender island
along, I remember that once we had to stoop and steer ourselves by
touching some half-buried corpses, so that we should not be thrown
down from the soft and sinuous ridge. My hand discovered shoulders
and hard backs, a face cold as a helmet, and a pipe still
desperately bitten by dead jaws.
As we emerged and raised our heads at a venture we heard the sound
of voices not far away. "Voices! Ah, voices!" They sounded tranquil
to us, as though they called us by our names, and we all came close
together to approach this fraternal murmuring of men.
The words became distinct. They were quite near--in the hillock that
we could dimly see like an oasis: and yet we could not hear what
they said. The sounds were muddled, and we did not understand them.
"What are they saying?" asked one of us in a curious tone.
Instinctively we stopped trying to find a way in. A doubt, a painful
idea was seizing us. Then, clearly enunciated, there rang out these
words--"Achtung!--Zweites Geschutz--Schuss--"Farther back,
the report of a gun answered the telephonic command.
Horror and stupefaction nailed us to the spot at first--"Where are
we? Oh, Christ, where are we?" Turning right about face, slowly in
spite of all, borne down anew by exhaustion and dismay, we took
flight, as overwhelmed by weariness as if we had many wounds, pulled
back by the mud towards the enemy country, and retaining only just
enough energy to repel the thought of the sweetness it would have
been to let ourselves die.
We came to a sort of great plain. We halted and threw ourselves on
the ground on the side of a mound, and leaned back upon it, unable
to make another step.
And we moved no more, my shadowy comrades nor I. The rain splashed
in our faces, streamed down our backs and chests, ran down from our
knees and filled our boots.
We should perhaps be killed or taken prisoners when day came. But we
thought no more of anything. We could do no more; we knew no more.
WE are waiting for daylight in the place where we sank to the
ground. Sinister and slow it comes, chilling and dismal, and expands
upon the livid landscape.
The rain has ceased to fall--there is none left in the sky. The
leaden plain and its mirrors of sullied water seem to issue not only
from the night but from the sea.
Drowsy or half asleep, sometimes opening our eyes only to close them
again, we attend the incredible renewal of light, paralyzed with
cold and broken with fatigue.
Where are the trenches?
We see lakes, and between the lakes there are lines of milky and
motionless water. There is more water even than we had thought. It
has taken everything and spread everywhere, and the prophecy of the
men in the night has come true. There are no more trenches; those
canals are the trenches enshrouded. It is a universal flood. The
battlefield is not sleeping; it is dead. Life may be going on down
yonder perhaps, but we cannot see so far.
Swaying painfully, like a sick man, in the terrible encumbering
clasp of my greatcoat, I half raise myself to look at it all. There
are three monstrously shapeless forms beside me. One of them--it is
Paradis, in an amazing armor of mud, with a swelling at the waist
that stands for his cartridge pouches--gets up also. The others are
asleep, and make no movement.
And what is this silence, too, this prodigious silence? There is no
sound, except when from time to time a lump of earth slips into the
water, in the middle of this fantastic paralysis of the world. No
one is firing. There are no shells, for they would not burst. There
are no bullets, either, for the men--
Ah, the men! Where are the men?
We see them gradually. Not far from us there are some stranded and
sleeping hulks so molded in mud from head to foot that they are
almost transformed into inanimate objects.
Some distance away I can make out others, curled up and clinging
like snails all along a rounded embankment, from which they have
partly slipped back into the water. It is a motionless rank of
clumsy lumps, of bundles placed side by side, dripping water and
mud, and of the same color as the soil with which they are blended.
I make an effort to break the silence. To Paradis, who also is
looking that way, I say, "Are they dead?"
"We'll go and see presently," he says in a low voice; "stop here a
bit yet. We shall have the heart to go there by and by."
We look at each other, and our eyes fall also on the others who came
and fell down here. Their faces spell such weariness that they are
no longer faces so much as something dirty, disfigured and bruised,
with blood-shot eyes. Since the beginning we have seen each other in
all manner of shapes and appearances, and yet--we do not know each
Paradis turns his head and looks elsewhere.
Suddenly I see him seized with trembling. He extends an arm
enormously caked in mud. "There--there--" he says.
On the water which overflows from a stretch particularly
cross-seamed and gullied, some lumps are floating, some round-backed
We drag ourselves to the spot. They are drowned men. Their arms and
heads are submerged. On the surface of the plastery liquid appear
their backs and the straps of their accouterments. Their blue cloth
trousers are inflated, with the feet attached askew upon the
ballooning legs, like the black wooden feet on the shapeless legs of
marionettes. From one sunken head the hair stands straight up like
water-weeds. Here is a face which the water only lightly touches;
the head is beached on the marge, and the body disappears in its
turbid tomb. The face is lifted skyward. The eyes are two white
holes; the mouth is a black hole. The mask's yellow and puffed-up
skin appears soft and creased, like dough gone cold.
They are the men who were watching there, and could not extricate
themselves from the mud. All their efforts to escape over the sticky
escarpment of the trench that was slowly and fatally filling with
water only dragged them still more into the depth. They died
clinging to the yielding support of the earth.
There, our first lines are; and there, the first German lines,
equally silent and flooded. On our way to these flaccid ruins we
pass through the middle of what yesterday was the zone of terror,
the awful space on whose threshold the fierce rush of our last
attack was forced to stop, the No Man's Land which bullets and
shells had not ceased to furrow for a year and a half, where their
crossed fire during these latter days had furiously swept the ground
from one horizon to the other.
Now, it is a field of rest. The ground is everywhere dotted with
beings who sleep or who are on the way to die, slowly moving,
lifting an arm, lifting the head.
The enemy trench is completing the process of foundering into
itself, among great marshy undulations and funnel-holes, shaggy with
mud: it forms among them a line of pools and wells. Here and there
we can see the still overhanging banks begin to move, crumble, and
fail down. In one place we can lean against it.
In this bewildering circle of filth there are no bodies. But there,
worse than a body, a solitary arm protrudes, bare and white as a
stone, from a hole which dimly shows on the other side of the water.
The man has been buried in his dug-out and has had only the time to
thrust out his arm.
Quite near, we notice that some mounds of earth aligned along the
ruined ramparts of this deep-drowned ditch are human. Are they
dead--or asleep? We do not know; in any case, they rest.
Are they German or French? We do not know. One of them has opened
his eyes, and looks at us with swaying head. We say to him,
"French?"--and then, "Deutsch?" He makes no reply, but shuts his
eyes again and relapses into oblivion. We never knew what he was.
We cannot decide the identity of these beings, either by their
clothes, thickly covered with filth, or by their head-dress, for
they are bareheaded or swathed in woolens under their liquid and
offensive cowls; or by their weapons, for they either have no rifles
or their hands rest lightly on something they have dragged along, a
shapeless and sticky mass, like to a sort of fish.
All these men of corpse-like faces who are before us and behind us,
at the limit of their strength, void of speech as of will, all these
earth-charged men who you would say were carrying their own
winding-sheets, are as much alike as if they were naked. Out of the
horror of the night apparitions are issuing from this side and that
who are clad in exactly the same uniform of misery and mud.
It is the end of all. For the moment it is the prodigious finish,
the epic cessation of the war.
I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of
shells; and then for long I thought it was the suffocation of the
caverns which eternally confine us. But it is neither of these. Hell
The wind is rising, and its icy breath goes through our flesh. On
the wrecked and dissolving plain, flecked with bodies between its
worm-shaped chasms of water, among the islands of motionless men
stuck together like reptiles, in this flattening and sinking chaos
there are some slight indications of movement. We see slowly
stirring groups and fragments of groups, composed of beings who bow
under the weight of their coats and aprons of mud, who trail
themselves along, disperse, and crawl about in the depths of the
sky's tarnished light. The dawn is so foul that one would say the
day was already done.
These survivors are migrating across the desolated steppe, pursued
by an unspeakable evil which exhausts and bewilders them. They are
lamentable objects; and some, when they are fully seen, are
dramatically ludicrous, for the whelming mud from which they still
take flight has half unclothed them.
As they pass by their glances go widely around. They look at us, and
discovering men in us they cry through the wind, "It's worse down
yonder than it is here. The chaps are falling into the holes, and
you can't pull them out. All them that trod on the edge of a
shell-hole last night, they're dead. Down there where we're coming
from you can see a head in the ground, working its arms, embedded.
There's a hurdle-path that's given way in places and the hurdles
have sunk into holes, and it's a man-trap. Where there's no more
hurdles there's two yards deep of water. Your rifle? You couldn't
pull it out again when you'd stuck it in. Look at those men, there.
They've cut off all the bottom half of their great-coats--hard lines
on the pockets--to help 'em get clear, and also because they hadn't
strength to drag a weight like that. Dumas' coat, we were able to
pull it off him, and it weighed a good eighty pounds; we could just
lift it, two of us, with both our hands. Look--him with the bare
legs; it's taken everything off him, his trousers, his drawers, his
boots, all dragged off by the mud. One's never seen that, never."
Scattered and straggling, the herd takes flight in a fever of fear,
their feet pulling huge stumps of mud out of the ground. We watch
the human flotsam fade away, and the lumps of them diminish, immured
in enormous clothes.
We get up, and at once the icy wind makes us tremble like trees.
Slowly we veer towards the mass formed by two men curiously joined,
leaning shoulder to shoulder, and each with an arm round the neck of
the other. Is it the hand-to-hand fight of two soldiers who have
overpowered each other in death and still hold their own, who can
never again lose their grip? No; they are two men who recline upon
each other so as to sleep. As they might not spread themselves on
the falling earth that was ready to spread itself on them, they have
supported each other, clasping each other's shoulder; and thus
plunged in the ground up to their knees, they have gone to sleep.
We respect their stillness, and withdraw from the twin statue of
Soon we must halt ourselves. We have expected too much of our
strength and can go no farther. It is not yet ended. We collapse
once more in a churned corner, with a noise as if one shot a load of
From time to time we open our eyes. Some men are steering for us,
reeling. They lean over us and speak in low and weary tones. One of
them says, "Sie sind todt. Wir bleiben hier." (They're dead. We'll
stay here.) The other says, "Ja," like a sigh.
But they see us move, and at once they sink in front of us. The man
with the toneless voice says to us in French, "We surrender," and
they do not move. Then they give way entirely, as if this was the
relief, the end of their torture; and one of them whose face is
patterned in mud like a savage tattooed, smiles slightly.
"Stay there," says Paradis, without moving the head that he leans
backward upon a hillock; "presently you shall go with us if you
"Yes," says the German, "I've had enough." We make no reply, and he
says, "And the others too?"
"Yes," says Paradis, "let them stop too, if they like." There are
four of them outstretched on the ground. The death-rattle has got
one of them. It is like a sobbing song that rises from him. The
others then half straighten themselves, kneeling round him, and roll
great eyes in their muck-mottled faces. We get up and watch the
scene. But the rattle dies out, and the blackened throat which alone
in all the big body pulsed like a little bird, is still.
"Er ist todt!" (He's dead) says one of the men, beginning to cry.
The others settle themselves again to sleep. The weeper goes to
sleep as he weeps.
Other soldiers have come, stumbling, gripped in sudden halts like
tipsy men, or gliding along like worms, to take sanctuary here; and
we sleep all jumbled together in the common grave.
* * * * * *
Waking, Paradis and I look at each other, and remember. We return to
life and daylight as in a nightmare. In front of us the calamitous
plain is resurrected, where hummocks vaguely appear from their
immersion, the steel-like plain that is rusty in places and shines
with lines and pools of water, while bodies are strewn here and
there in the vastness like foul rubbish, prone bodies that breathe
Paradis says to me, "That's war."
"Yes, that's it," he repeats in a far-away voice, "that's war. It's
not anything else."
He means--and I am with him in his meaning--"More than attacks that
are like ceremonial reviews, more than visible battles unfurled like
banners, more even than the hand-to-hand encounters of shouting
strife, War is frightful and unnatural weariness, water up to the
belly, mud and dung and infamous filth. It is befouled faces and
tattered flesh, it is the corpses that are no longer like corpses
even, floating on the ravenous earth. It is that, that endless
monotony of misery, broken, by poignant tragedies; it is that, and
not the bayonet glittering like silver, nor the bugle's chanticleer
call to the sun!"
Paradis was so full of this thought that he ruminated a memory, and
growled, "D'you remember the woman in the town where we went about a
bit not so very long ago? She talked some drivel about attacks, and
said, 'How beautiful they must be to see!'"
A chasseur who was full length on his belly, flattened out like a
cloak, raised his bead out of the filthy background in which it was
sunk, and cried, 'Beautiful? Oh, hell! It's just as if an ox were to
say, 'What a fine sight it must be, all those droves of cattle
driven forward to the slaughter-house!'" He spat out mud from his
besmeared mouth, and his unburied face was like a beast's.
"Let them say, 'It must be,'" he sputtered in a strange jerky voice,
grating and ragged; "that's all right. But beautiful! Oh, hell!"
Writhing under the idea, he added passionately, "It's when they say
things like that that they hit us hardest of all!" He spat again,
hut exhausted by his effort he fell back in his bath of mud, and
laid his head in his spittle.
* * * * * *
Paradis, possessed by his notion, waved his hand towards the wide
unspeakable landscape. and looking steadily on it repeated his
sentence, 'War is that. It is that everywhere. What are we, we
chaps, and what's all this here? Nothing at all. All we can see is
only a speck. You've got to remember that this morning there's three
thousand kilometers of equal evils, or nearly equal, or worse."
"And then," said the comrade at our side, whom we could not
recognize even by his voice, "to-morrow it begins again. It began
again the day before yesterday, and all the days before that!"
With an effort as if he was tearing the ground, the chasseur dragged
his body out of the earth where he had molded a depression like an
oozing coffin, and sat in the hole. He blinked his eyes and tried to
shake the balance of mud from his face, and said, "We shall come out
of it again this time. And who knows, p'raps we shall come out of it
again to-morrow! Who knows?"
Paradis, with his back bent under mats of earth and clay, was trying
to convey his idea that the war cannot be imagined or measured in
terms of time and space. "When one speaks of the whole war," he
said, thinking aloud, "it's as if you said nothing at all--the words
are strangled. We're here, and we look at it all like blind men."
A bass voice rolled to us from a little farther away, "No, one
cannot imagine it."
At these words a burst of harsh laughter tore itself from some one.
"How could you imagine it, to begin with, if you hadn't been there?"
"You'd have to be mad," said the chasseur.
Paradis leaned over a sprawling outspread mass beside him and said,
"Are you asleep?"
"No, but I'm not going to budge." The smothered and terror-struck
mutter issued instantly from the mass that was covered with a thick
and slimy horse-cloth, so indented that it seemed to have been
trampled. "I'll tell you why. I believe my belly's shot through. But
I'm not sure, and I daren't find out."
"No, not yet," says the man. "I'd rather stop on a bit like this."
The others, dragging themselves on their elbows, began to make
splashing movements, by way of casting off the clammy infernal
covering that weighed them down. The paralysis of cold was passing
away from the knot of sufferers, though the light no longer made any
progress over the great irregular marsh of the lower plain. The
desolation proceeded, but not the day.
Then he who spoke sorrowfully, like a bell, said. "It'll be no good
telling about it, eh? They wouldn't believe you; not out of malice
or through liking to pull your leg, but because they couldn't. When
you say to 'em later, if you live to say it, 'We were on a night job
and we got shelled and we were very nearly drowned in mud,' they'll
say, 'Ah!' And p'raps they'll say. 'You didn't have a very spicy
time on the job.' And that's all. No one can know it. Only us."
"No, not even us, not even us!" some one cried.
"That's what I say, too. We shall forget--we're forgetting already,
"We've seen too much to remember."
"And everything we've seen was too much. We're not made to hold it
all. It takes its damned hook in all directions. We're too little to
"You're right, we shall forget! Not only the length of the big
misery, which can't be calculated, as you say, ever since the
beginning, but the marches that turn up the ground and turn it
again, lacerating your feet and wearing out your bones under a load
that seems to grow bigger in the sky, the exhaustion until you don't
know your own name any more, the tramping and the inaction that
grind you, the digging jobs that exceed your strength, the endless
vigils when you fight against sleep and watch for an enemy who is
everywhere in the night, the pillows of dung and lice--we shall
forget not only those, but even the foul wounds of shells and
machine-guns, the mines, the gas, and the counter-attacks. At those
moments you're full of the excitement of reality, and you've some
satisfaction. But all that wears off and goes away, you don't know
how and you don't know where, and there's only the names left, only
the words of it, like in a dispatch."
"That's true what he says," remarks a man, without moving his head
in its pillory of mud. When I was on leave, I found I'd already
jolly well forgotten what had happened to me before. There were some
letters from me that I read over again just as if they were a book I
was opening. And yet in spite of that, I've forgotten also all the
pain I've had in the war. We're forgetting-machines. Men are things
that think a little but chiefly forget. That's what we are."
"Then neither the other side nor us'll remember! So much misery all
This point of view added to the abasement of these beings on the
shore of the flood, like news of a greater disaster, and humiliated
them still more.
"Ah, if one did remember!" cried some one.
"If we remembered," said another, "there wouldn't be any more war."
A third added grandly, "Yes, if we remembered, war would be less
useless than it is."
But suddenly one of the prone survivors rose to his knees, dark as a
great bat ensnared, and as the mud dripped from his waving arms he
cried in a hollow voice, "There must be no more war after this!"
In that miry corner where, still feeble unto impotence, we were
beset by blasts of wind which laid hold on us with such rude
strength that the very ground seemed to sway like sea-drift, the cry
of the man who looked as if he were trying to fly away evoked other
like cries: "There must be no more war after this!"
The sullen or furious exclamations of these men fettered to the
earth, incarnate of earth, arose and slid away on the wind like
"No more war! No more war! Enough of it!"
"It's too stupid--it's too stupid," they mumbled.
"What does it mean, at the bottom of it, all this?--all this that
you can't even give a name to?"
They snarled and growled like wild beasts on that sort of ice-floe
contended for by the elements, in their dismal disguise of ragged
mud. So huge was the protest thus rousing them in revolt that it
"We're made to live, not to be done in like this!"
"Men are made to be husbands, fathers--men, what the devil!--not
beasts that hunt each other and cut each other's throats and make
themselves stink like all that."
"And yet, everywhere--everywhere--there are beasts, savage beasts or
smashed beasts. Look, look!"
I shall never forget the look of those limitless lands wherefrom the
water had corroded all color and form, whose contours crumbled on
all sides under the assault of the liquid putrescence that flowed
across the broken bones of stakes and wire and framing; nor, rising
above those things amid the sullen Stygian immensity, can I ever
forget the vision of the thrill of reason, logic and simplicity that
suddenly shook these men like a fit of madness.
I could see them agitated by this idea--that to try to live one's
life on earth and to be happy is not only a right but a duty, and
even an ideal and a virtue; that the only end of social life is to
make easy the inner life of every one.
"To live!"--"All of us!"--"You!"--"Me!"
"No more war--ah, no!--it's too stupid--worse than that, it's
For a finishing echo to their half-formed thought a saying came to
the mangled and miscarried murmur of the mob from a filth-crowned
face that I saw arise from the level of the earth--"Two armies
fighting each other--that's like one great army committing suicide!"
* * * * * *
"And likewise, what have we been for two years now? Incredibly
pitiful wretches, and savages as well, brutes, robbers, and dirty
"Worse than that!" mutters he whose only phrase it is.
"Yes, I admit it!"
In their troubled truce of the morning, these men whom fatigue had
tormented, whom rain had scourged, whom night-long lightning had
convulsed, these survivors of volcanoes and flood began not only to
see dimly how war, as hideous morally as physically, outrages common
sense, debases noble ideas and dictates all kind of crime, but they
remembered how it had enlarged in them and about them every evil
instinct save none, mischief developed into lustful cruelty,
selfishness into ferocity, the hunger for enjoyment into a mania.
They are picturing all this before their eyes as just now they
confusedly pictured their misery. They are crammed with a curse
which strives to find a way out and to come to light in words, a
curse which makes them to groan and wail. It is as if they toiled to
emerge from the delusion and ignorance which soil them as the mud
soils them; as if they will at last know why they are scourged.
"Well then?" clamors one.
"Ay, what then?" the other repeats, still more grandly. The wind
sets the flooded flats a-tremble to our eyes, and falling furiously
on the human masses lying or kneeling and fixed like flagstones and
grave-slabs, it wrings new shivering from them.
"There will be no more war," growls a soldier, "when there is no
"That's not the right thing to say!" cries another. "It isn't
enough. There'll be no more war when the spirit of war is defeated."
The roaring of the wind half smothered his words, so he lifted his
head and repeated them.
"Germany and militarism"--some one in his anger precipitately cut
in--"they're the same thing. They wanted the war and they'd planned
it beforehand. They are militarism."
"Militarism--" a soldier began again.
"What is it?" some one asked.
"It's--it's brute force that's ready prepared, and that lets fly
suddenly, any minute."
"Yes. To-day militarism is called Germany."
"Yes, but what will it be called to-morrow?"
"I don't know," said a voice serious as a prophet's.
"If the spirit of war isn't killed, you'll have struggle all through
"We must--one's got to--"
"We must fight!" gurgled the hoarse voice of a man who had lain
stiff in the devouring mud ever since our awakening; "we've got to!"
His body turned heavily over. "We've got to give all we have, our
strength and our skins and our hearts, all our life and what
pleasures are left us. The life of prisoners as we are, we've got to
take it in both hands. You've got to endure everything, even
injustice--and that's the king that's reigning now--and the shameful
and disgusting sights we see, so as to come out on top, and win. But
if we've got to make such a sacrifice," adds the shapeless man,
turning over again, "it's because we're fighting for progress, not
for a country; against error, not against a country."
"War must be killed," said the first speaker, "war must be killed in
the belly of Germany!"
"Anyway," said one of those who sat enrooted there like a sort of
shrub, "anyway, we're beginning to understand why we've got to march
"All the same," grumbled the squatting chasseur in his turn, "there
are some that fight with quite another idea than that in their
heads. I've seen some of 'em, young men, who said, 'To hell with
humanitarian ideas'; what mattered to them was nationality and
nothing else, and the war was a question of fatherlands--let every
man make a shine about his own. They were fighting, those chaps, and
they were fighting well."
"They're young, the lads you're talking about; they're young, and we
must excuse 'em."
"You can do a thing well without knowing what you are doing."
"Men are mad, that's true. You'll never say that often enough."
"The Jingoes--they're vermin," growled a shadow.
Several times they repeated, as though feeling their way, "War must
be killed; war itself."
"That's all silly talk. What diff does it make whether you think
this or that? We've got to be winners, that's all."
But the others had begun to cast about. They wanted to know and to
see farther than to-day. They throbbed with the effort to beget in
themselves some light of wisdom and of will. Some sparse convictions
whirled in their minds, and jumbled scraps of creeds issued from
"Of course--yes--but we must look at facts--you've got to think
about the object, old chap."
"The object? To be winners in this war," the pillar-man insisted,
"isn't that an object?"
Two there were who replied together, "No!"
* * * * * *
At this moment there was a dull noise; cries broke out around us,
and we shuddered. A length of earth had detached itself from the
hillock on which--after a fashion--we were leaning back, and had
completely exhumed in the middle of us a sitting corpse, with its
legs out full length. The collapse burst a pool that had gathered on
the top of the mound, and the water spread like a cascade over the
body and laved it as we looked.
Some one cried, "His face is all black!"
"What is that face?" gasped a voice.
Those who were able drew near in a circle, like frogs. We could not
gaze upon the head that showed in low relief upon the trench-wall
that the landslide had laid bare. "His face? It isn't his face!" In
place of the face we found the hair, and then we saw that the corpse
which had seemed to be sitting was broken, and folded the wrong way.
In dreadful silence we looked on the vertical back of the dislocated
dead, upon the hanging arms, backward curved, and the two
outstretched legs that rested on the sinking soil by the points of
the toes. Then the discussion began again, revived by this fearful
sleeper. As though the corpse was listening they clamored--"No! To
win isn't the object. It isn't those others we've got to get
"Can't you see that we've got to finish with war? If we've got to
begin again some day, all that's been done is no good. Look at it
there!--and it would be in vain. It would be two or three years or
more of wasted catastrophe."
* * * * * *
"Ah, my boy, if all we've gone through wasn't the end of this great
calamity! I value my life; I've got my wife, my family, my home
around them; I've got schemes for my life afterwards, mind you.
Well, all the same, if this wasn't the end of it, I'd rather die."
"I'm going to die." The echo came at that moment exactly from
Paradis' neighbor, who no doubt had examined the wound in his belly.
"I'm sorry on account of my children."
"It's on account of my children that I'm not sorry," came a murmur
from somewhere else. "I'm dying, so I know what I'm saying, and I
say to myself, 'They'll have peace.'"
"Perhaps I shan't die," said another, with a quiver of hope that he
could not restrain even in the presence of the doomed, "but I shall
suffer. Well, I say, 'more's the pity,' and I even say 'that's all
right'; and I shall know how to stick more suffering if I know it's
"Then we'll have to go on fighting after the war?"
"You want more of it, do you?"
"Yes, because I want no more of it," the voice grunted. "And p'raps
it'll not be foreigners that we've got to fight?"
A still more violent blast of wind shut our eyes and choked us. When
it had passed, and we saw the volley take flight across the plain,
seizing and shaking its muddy plunder and furrowing the water in the
long gaping trenches--long as the grave of an army--we began again.
"After all, what is it that makes the mass and the horror of war?"
"It's the mass of the people."
"But the people--that's us!"
He who had said it looked at me inquiringly.
"Yes," I said to him, "yes, old boy, that's true! It's with us only
that they make battles. It is we who are the material of war. War is
made up of the flesh and the souls of common soldiers only. It is we
who make the plains of dead and the rivers of blood, all of us, and
each of us is invisible and silent because of the immensity of our
numbers. The emptied towns and the villages destroyed, they are a
wilderness of our making. Yes, war is all of us, and all of us
"Yes, that's true. It's the people who are war; without them, there
would be nothing, nothing but some wrangling, a long way off. But it
isn't they who decide on it; it's the masters who steer them."
"The people are struggling to-day to have no more masters that steer
them. This war, it's like the French Revolution continuing."
"Well then, if that's so, we're working for the Prussians too?"
"It's to be hoped so," said one of the wretches of the plain.
"Oh, hell!" said the chasseur, grinding his teeth. But he shook his
head and added no more.
"We want to look after ourselves! You shouldn't meddle in other
people's business," mumbled the obstinate snarler.
"Yes, you should! Because what you call 'other people,' that's just
what they're not--they're the same!"
"Why is it always us that has to march away for everybody?"
"That's it!" said a man, and he repeated the words he had used a
moment before. "More's the pity, or so much the better."
"The people--they're nothing, though they ought to be everything,"
then said the man who had questioned me, recalling, though he did
not know it, an historic sentence of more than a century ago, but
investing it at last with its great universal significance. Escaped
from torment, on all fours in the deep grease of the ground, he
lifted his leper-like face and looked hungrily before him into
He looked and looked. He was trying to open the gates of heaven.
* * * * * *
"The peoples of the world ought to come to an understanding, through
the hides and on the bodies of those who exploit them one way or
another. All the masses ought to agree together."
"All men ought to be equal."
The word seems to come to us like a rescue.
"Equal--yes--yes--there are some great meanings for justice and
truth. There are some things one believes in, that one turns to and
clings to as if they were a sort of light. There's equality, above
"There's liberty and fraternity, too."
"But principally equality!"
I tell them that fraternity is a dream, an obscure and uncertain
sentiment; that while it is unnatural for a man to hate one whom he
does not know, it is equally unnatural to love him. You can build
nothing on fraternity. Nor on liberty, either; it is too relative a
thing in a society where all the elements subdivide each other by
But equality is always the same. Liberty and fraternity are words
while equality is a fact. Equality should be the great human
formula--social equality, for while individuals have varying values,
each must have an equal share in the social life; and that is only
just, because the life of one human being is equal to the life of
another. That formula is of prodigious importance. The principle of
the equal rights of every living being and the sacred will of the
majority is infallible and must be invincible; all progress will be
brought about by it, all, with a force truly divine. It will bring
first the smooth bed-rock of all progress--the settling of quarrels
by that justice which is exactly the same thing as the general
And these men of the people, dimly seeing some unknown Revolution
greater than the other, a revolution springing from themselves and
already rising, rising in their throats, repeat "Equality!"
It seems as if they were spelling the word and then reading it
distinctly on all sides--that there is not upon the earth any
privilege, prejudice or injustice that does not collapse in contact
with it. It is an answer to all, a word of sublimity. They revolve
the idea over and over, and find a kind of perfection in it. They
see errors and abuses burning in a brilliant light.
"That would be fine!" said one.
"Too fine to be true!" said another.
But the third said, "It's because it's true that it's fine. It has
no other beauty, mind! And it's not because it's fine that it will
come. Fineness is not in vogue, any more than love is. It's because
it's true that it has to be."
"Then, since justice is wanted by the people, and the people have
the power, let them do it."
"They're beginning already!" said some obscure lips.
"It's the way things are running," declared another.
"When all men have made themselves equal, we shall be forced to
"And there'll no longer be appalling things done in the face of
heaven by thirty million men who don't wish them."
It is true, and there is nothing to reply to it. What pretended
argument or shadow of an answer dare one oppose to it--"There'll no
longer be the things done in the face of heaven by thirty millions
of men who don't want to do them!"
Such is the logic that I hear and follow of the words, spoken by
these pitiful fellows cast upon the field of affliction, the words
which spring from their bruises and pains, the words which bleed
Now, the sky is all overcast. Low down it is armored in steely blue
by great clouds. Above, in a weakly luminous silvering, it is
crossed by enormous sweepings of wet mist. The weather is worsening,
and more rain on the way. The end of the tempest and the long
trouble is not yet.
"We shall say to ourselves," says one, "'After all, why do we make
war?' We don't know at all why, but we can say who we make it for.
We shall be forced to see that if every nation every day brings the
fresh bodies of fifteen hundred young men to the God of War to be
lacerated, it's for the pleasure of a few ringleaders that we could
easily count; that if whole nations go to slaughter marshaled in
armies in order that the gold-striped caste may write their princely
names in history, so that other gilded people of the same rank can
contrive more business, and expand in the way of employees and
shops--and we shall see, as soon as we open our eyes, that the
divisions between mankind are not what we thought, and those one did
believe in are not divisions."
"Listen!" some one broke in suddenly.
We hold our peace, and hear afar the sound of guns. Yonder, the
growling is agitating the gray strata of the sky, and the distant
violence breaks feebly on our buried ears. All around us, the waters
continue to sap the earth and by degrees to ensnare its heights.
"It's beginning again."
Then one of us says, "Ah, look what we've got against us!"
Already there is uneasy hesitation in these castaways' discussion of
their tragedy, in the huge masterpiece of destiny that they are
roughly sketching. It is not only the peril and pain, the misery of
the moment, whose endless beginning they see again. It is the enmity
of circumstances and people against the truth, the accumulation of
privilege and ignorance, of deafness and unwillingness, the taken
sides, the savage conditions accepted, the immovable masses, the
And the dream of fumbling thought is continued in another vision, in
which everlasting enemies emerge from the shadows of the past and
stand forth in the stormy darkness of to-day.
* * * * * *
Here they are. We seem to see them silhouetted against the sky,
above the crests of the storm that beglooms the world--a cavalcade
of warriors, prancing and flashing, the charges that carry armor and
plumes and gold ornament, crowns and swords. They are burdened with
weapons; they send forth gleams of light; magnificent they roll. The
antiquated movements of the warlike ride divide the clouds like the
painted fierceness of a theatrical scene.
And far above the fevered gaze of them who are upon the ground,
whose bodies are layered with the dregs of the earth and the wasted
fields, the phantom cohort flows from the four corners of the
horizon, drives back the sky's infinity and hides its blue deeps.
And they are legion. They are not only the warrior caste who shout
as they fight and have joy of it, not only those whom universal
slavery has clothed in magic power, the mighty by birth, who tower
here and there above the prostration of the human race and will take
their sudden stand by the scales of justice when they think they see
great profit to gain; not only these, but whole multitudes who
minister consciously or unconsciously to their fearful privilege.
"There are those who say," now cries one of the somber and
compelling talkers, extending his hand as though he could see the
pageant, "there are those who say, 'How fine they are!'"
"And those who say, 'The nations hate each other!'"
"And those who say, 'I get fat on war, and my belly matures on it!'"
"And those who say, 'There has always been war, so there always will
"There are those who say, 'I can't see farther than the end of my
nose, and I forbid others to see farther!'"
"There are those who say, 'Babies come into the world with either
red or blue breeches on!'"
"There are those," growled a hoarse voice, "who say, 'Bow your head
and trust in God!'"
* * * * * *
Ah, you are right, poor countless workmen of the battles, you who
have made with your bands all of the Great War, you whose
omnipotence is not yet used for well-doing, you human host whose
every face is a world of sorrows, you who dream bowed under the yoke
of a thought beneath that sky where long black clouds rend
themselves and expand in disheveled lengths like evil angels--yes,
you are right. There are all those things against you. Against you
and your great common interests which as you dimly saw are the same
thing in effect as justice, there are not only the sword-wavers, the
profiteers, and the intriguers.
There is not only the prodigious opposition of interested
parties--financiers, speculators great and small, armorplated in
their banks and houses, who live on war and live in peace during
war, with their brows stubbornly set upon a secret doctrine and
their faces shut up like safes.
There are those who admire the exchange of flashing blows, who hail
like women the bright colors of uniforms; those whom military music
and the martial ballads poured upon the public intoxicate as with
brandy; the dizzy-brained, the feeble-minded, the superstitious, the
There are those who bury themselves in the past, on whose lips are
the sayings only of bygone days, the traditionalists for whom an
injustice has legal force because it is perpetuated, who aspire to
be guided by the dead, who strive to subordinate progress and the
future and all their palpitating passion to the realm of ghosts and
With them are all the parsons, who seek to excite you and to lull
you to sleep with the morphine of their Paradise, so that nothing
may change. There are the lawyers, the economists, the
historians--and how many more?--who befog you with the rigmarole of
theory, who declare the inter-antagonism of nationalities at a time
when the only unity possessed by each nation of to-day is in the
arbitrary map-made lines of her frontiers, while she is inhabited by
an artificial amalgam of races; there are the worm-eaten
genealogists, who forge for the ambitious of conquest and plunder
false certificates of philosophy and imaginary titles of nobility.
The infirmity of human intelligence is short sight. In too many
cases, the wiseacres are dunces of a sort, who lose sight of the
simplicity of things, and stifle and obscure it with formulae and
trivialities. It is the small things that one learns from books, not
the great ones.
And even while they are saying that they do not wish for war they
are doing all they can to perpetuate it. They nourish national
vanity and the love of supremacy by force. "We alone," they say,
each behind his shelter, "we alone are the guardians of courage and
loyalty, of ability and good taste!" Out of the greatness and
richness of a country they make something like a consuming disease.
Out of patriotism--which can be respected as long as it remains in
the domain of sentiment and art on exactly the same footing as the
sense of family and local pride, all equally sacred--out of
patriotism they make a Utopian and impracticable idea, unbalancing
the world, a sort of cancer which drains all the living force,
spreads everywhere and crushes life, a contagious cancer which
culminates either in the crash of war or in the exhaustion and
suffocation of armed peace.
They pervert the most admirable of moral principles. How many are
the crimes of which they have made virtues merely by dowering them
with the word "national"? They distort even truth itself. For the
truth which is eternally the same they substitute each their
national truth. So many nations, so many truths; and thus they
falsify and twist the truth.
Those are your enemies. All those people whose childish and odiously
ridiculous disputes you hear snarling above you--"It wasn't me that
began, it was you!"--"No, it wasn't me, it was you!"--"Hit me
then!"--"No, you hit me!"--those puerilities that perpetuate the
world's huge wound, for the disputants are not the people truly
concerned, but quite the contrary, nor do they desire to have done
with it; all those people who cannot or will not make peace on
earth; all those who for one reason or another cling to the ancient
state of things and find or invent excuses for it--they are your
They are your enemies as much as those German soldiers are to-day
who are prostrate here between you in the mud, who are only poor
dupes hatefully deceived and brutalized, domestic beasts. They are
your enemies, wherever they were born, however they pronounce their
names, whatever the language in which they lie. Look at them, in the
heaven and on the earth. Look at them, everywhere! Identify them
once for all, and be mindful for ever!
* * * * * *
"They will say to you," growled a kneeling man who stooped with his
two bands in the earth and shook his shoulders like a mastiff, 'My
friend, you have been a wonderful hero!' I don't want them to say
"Heroes? Some sort of extraordinary being? Idols? Rot! We've been
murderers. We have respectably followed the trade of hangmen. We
shall do it again with all our might, because it's of great
importance to follow that trade, so as to punish war and smother it.
The act of slaughter is always ignoble; sometimes necessary, but
always ignoble. Yes, hard and persistent murderers, that's what
we've been. But don't talk to me about military virtue because I've
"Nor to me," cried another in so loud a voice that no one could have
replied to him even had he dared; "nor to me, because I've saved the
lives of Frenchmen! Why, we might as well set fire to houses for the
sake of the excellence of life-saving!"
"It would be a crime to exhibit the fine side of war, even if there
were one!" murmured one of the somber soldiers.
The first man continued. "They'll say those things to us by way of
paying us with glory, and to pay themselves, too, for what they
haven't done. But military glory--it isn't even true for us common
soldiers. It's for some, but outside those elect the soldier's glory
is a lie, like every other fine-looking thing in war. In reality,
the soldier's sacrifice is obscurely concealed. The multitudes that
make up the waves of attack have no reward. They run to hurl
themselves into a frightful inglorious nothing. You cannot even heap
up their names, their poor little names of nobodies."
"To hell with it all," replies a man, "we've got other things to
"But all that," hiccupped a face which the mud concealed like a
hideous hand, "may you even say it? You'd be cursed, and 'shot at
dawn'! They've made around a Marshal's plumes a religion as bad and
stupid and malignant as the other!"
The man raised himself, fell down, and rose again. The wound that he
had under his armor of filth was staining the ground, and when he
had spoken, his wide-open eyes looked down at all the blood he had
given for the healing of the world.
* * * * * *
The others, one by one, straighten themselves. The storm is falling
more heavily on the expanse of flayed and martyred fields. The day
is full of night. It is as if new enemy shapes of men and groups of
men are rising unceasingly on the crest of the mountain-chain of
clouds, round about the barbaric outlines of crosses, eagles,
churches, royal and military palaces and temples. They seem to
multiply there, shutting out the stars that are fewer than mankind;
it seems even as if these apparitions are moving in all directions
in the excavated ground, here, there, among the real beings who are
thrown there at random, half buried in the earth like grains of
My still living companions have at last got up. Standing with
difficulty on the foundered soil, enclosed in their bemired garb,
laid out in strange upright coffins of mud, raising their huge
simplicity out of the earth's depths--a profoundity like that of
ignorance--they move and cry out, with their gaze, their arms and
their fists extended towards the sky whence fall daylight and storm.
They are struggling against victorious specters, like the Cyranos
and Don Quixotes that they still are.
One sees their shadows stirring on the shining sad expanse of the
plain, and reflected in the pallid stagnant surface of the old
trenches, which now only the infinite void of space inhabits and
purifies, in the center of a polar desert whose horizons fume.
But their eyes are opened. They are beginning to make out the
boundless simplicity of things. And Truth not only invests them with
a dawn of hope, but raises on it a renewal of strength and courage.
"That's enough talk about those others!" one of the men commanded;
"all the worse for them!--Us! Us all!" The understanding between
democracies, the entente among the multitudes, the uplifting of the
people of the world, the bluntly simple faith! All the rest, aye,
all the rest, in the past, the present and the future, matters
nothing at all.
And a soldier ventures to add this sentence, though he begins it
with lowered voice, "If the present war has advanced progress by one
step, its miseries and slaughter will count for little."
And while we get ready to rejoin the others and begin war again, the
dark and storm-choked sky slowly opens above our heads. Between two
masses of gloomy cloud a tranquil gleam emerges; and that line of
light, so blackedged and beset, brings even so its proof that the
sun is there.