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On the Somme
I HAD no desire for laughter, and yet at times I felt a vague longing to laugh. It was when I thought of those men who write about the war in the newspapers, saying: "The breach has been made. Why do we hesitate to fling fifty divisions into it?" or, "It remains only to mass reserves close to the front. Quick! Four hundred thousand men into the breach."
I should have liked to set those fellows to work to find, between Fouilloy and Maricourt, a space big enough for the cat that purrs on their piles of strategical papers. They would have had a bit of a job.
As I walked along I mused over my affairs; from time to time I would cast a glance over the country-side, and I assure you I saw some curious things.
Under the poplars that stretch down the length of the valley an immense army lay hidden, with its battalions, its animals, its wagons, all its artillery, its discolored tents, its evil-smelling leather, its filth. The horses were nibbling the bark of the great trees, which were dying, the victims of a premature autumn. A surging mass were trying to hide themselves, as if the face of heaven were one vast betrayal. A trio of puny elms served as shelter for a whole encampment; a dusty hedge hid under its shadow the fighting equipment of an entire army. But the vegetation was sparse and the shelter scanty, so that the army overflowed everywhere across the naked plain, scraping the roads to the quick, until they showed their bare skeletons, streaking the fields with tracks like those left by the passage of great herds of wild animals.
There were joint roads where the French and the English moved side by side. There you saw filing past the fine British artillery, quite new, not rusty, but shining, covered with light-colored cloth, its horses selected for their coloring and all well fed and well groomed like circus mounts. Some infantry was going by also, nothing but young men. The flutes and drums of various sorts made a savage music for them, like that of the Senegalese. And then some great two-storied cars went by, carrying with scarcely a tremor the wounded who with their fair hair and their surprised expressions still had the placid look of Cook's tourists.
Our villages were filled to bursting. Man had thrust himself in everywhere, like an epidemic, like an inundation. He had driven the beasts from their quarters and installed himself in the stables, in the cattle-sheds, in the burrows. The stores of shells, here and there, looked like potteries full of earthenware jugs.
The slimy water of the canal was loaded with barges, carrying provisions, guns, hospital supplies.
A vehement vibration replaced the usual silence, caused by the breathing of all these beings and the grinding sound of their machines. The whole landscape suggested some sort of sinister kermess, some festival of war, some gathering of rowdies and gipsy bands.
The closer we came to Bray, the more congested the country seemed. The automobiles ruled over the highways tyrannically, pushing out into the fields the humble convoys drawn by horses. Some little trucks, built close to the ground, their backs loaded with thousands of cartridges, showed their independence by tooting ostentatiously; between the cases men were squatting, half asleep, mutely testifying that it is sweet to be seated on something that does your walking for you.
When I arrived above Chipilly I saw a strange sight. A vast plateau rolled away, covered with so many men, objects, and beasts that over great stretches the earth was no longer visible. Beyond the ruined rower that rises above Etinehem extended a landscape that was brown, reddish, like a heath ravaged by fire. Later I found that this color was due to the accumulation of horses, crowded one against another. Every day they led twenty-two thousand to drink at the muddy watering-place in the Somme. They turned the trails into mire and filled the air with a formidable odor of sweat and dung.
Farther to the left there rose a veritable city of unbleached tents, with red crosses quartered on their tops. Beyond this the ground dropped abruptly and stretched away toward the battle-field, trembling under its black smoke against the horizon. Here and there rose, side by side, puffs of smoke from a hail of shells, all in a line like trees along a road. There were thirty balloons or more in a circle high overhead, like curious idlers watching a quarrel.
The adjutant pointed to the tents and said to me:
"That's Hill 80 over there! You'll see more wounded go through that place than there are hairs on your head, and more blood flow than there is water in the canal. All those who fall between Combles and Bouchavesnes are brought there."
I nodded, and we returned to our reflections. The daylight was fading out in the dim mists of the marshes. Some heavy pieces of English artillery were firing not far away from us, and their sound hurtled over the plain like a furious charger, dashing blindly onward. The horizon was peopled with so many guns that one heard a continuous rumble like that of an immense caldron boiling over a brazier.
The adjutant turned to me again:
"You have had three brothers killed by the enemy. In one sense, you are out of it all. You will not be badly off as a stretcher-bearer. It's unpleasant in a way, but it's a whole lot better than being in the line; isn't it?"
I did not answer. I was thinking of the desolate little valley, facing the ridge of Plemont, where I had passed the beginning of the summer. I had endured there hours of deadly tedium, watching through the shattered poplars the horror-stricken apple-trees along the chaotic road, the shell-holes filled with a sickeningly green, oozing water, the mute, reproachful face of the castle of Plessier, and that frightful hill which only a cosmic upheaval could have thrown up from the dismal depths of some dream. There, during long nights of guard duty, I had inhaled the fetid breath of fields thickly sown with corpses. In the solitude of utter despair I had experienced by turns the fear and the desire of death. And then, one day, they had come to me, saying, "You are to return to the rear; your third brother has just been killed." And many who looked at me seemed to be thinking, as the adjutant thought: "Your third brother is dead! In a sense you are in luck."
I was thinking of all this as I made my way toward my new destination. We were picking our way over that plateau, raised like an altar toward the sky, loaded as if for a sacrifice with millions of creatures.
There had been no rain for several days and we were living in the kingdom of dust. Dust is the toll exacted for fine weather; it permeates the hounds of war, mingles in their work, their food, their thoughts; it soils the lips, grits the teeth, and inflames the eyes. It spoils the honest joy of breathing. But when it disappears, the reign of mud begins, and the soul thrives better in dust than in mud.
In the distance great currents of dust like sluggish rivers marked all the roads of the country, spreading themselves all over the landscape at the will of the winds. It sullied the sunlight, as the sky was affronted by great flocks of aviators, as the silence was affronted and sullied, as the earth and its raiment of verdure were sullied and defiled.
I had little enough inclination for joy, as it was, but all this made me fairly drunk with misery.
As my glances fell on my surroundings, I could find no place on which to rest them but the innocent eyes of the horses or those of a few miserable, frightened men who were working along the rough roads. Save for them, the whole world was nothing but a bristling camp.
Night was falling as we reached the city of tents. The adjutant led our toward a tortoise and found a place for me on the straw, which smelled like a pig-pen. I set my pack down, stretched myself out, and went to sleep.
Rising with the dawn, I steered my way through she fog and tried to get my bearings.
There was a road, the road from Albert, worn full of hollows, jammed with traffic. Along it flowed the never-ending stream of the wounded. Beside this road rose up the city of tents, with its streets, its districts, its public squares. Behind the tents there was a cemetery. That was all.
I leaned against a post and I loked at the cemetery. It was already overflowing; it had a famished air. A lot of German prisoners were at work digging long trenches that gaped like open jaws. Two officers passed; one of them was stout and seemed, early as it was, to be on the point of an apoplectic fit. He was saying to the other, with frantic gestures:
"We have two hundred graves ready and nearly as many coffins. No, no! They can never say that this offensive was not prepared for!"
There were, in fact, a great many coffins waiting. They filled a tent where some men were hastily laying out the corpses. Out in the open a large gang of carpenters were cutting up pine boards. They were whistling and singing innocently, as men usually do when they are busy with their hands.
It was to this work that I was assigned that very day, the reason given being that in my youth I had had something to do with furniture designing.
Once more I learned that every man judges even the most imposing events only from the point of view that his profession and his habits afford him. There was a sergeant there whose opinion of the World War depended on the quality of the wood he had to work with. When the wood was poor, he would say: "This war's a hopeless mess." But when the wood had no knots in it he would asseverate: "We'll get them."
An anxious busybody of a young man had undertaken the overwhelming task of directing the whole hospital. He would appear at all hours, his fingers clasping bundles of papers that passed ceaselessly from one hand to the other. I seldom had occasion to hear him speak, but almost every time I surprised the same words: "That doesn't concern me. I have nothing to do with that! I have trouble enough already."
I realized that he had a great many things to think about. Nearly all day automobiles, weighted down with groaning cargoes, followed one another along the curved roadway, which was being hastily paved and which was like the ravenous mouth of this vast organism. At the top of the curve the cars would be emptied under a porch adorned with flags that somewhat resembled the decorated canopy set up at a church door on the day of a wedding.
On the very first evening I received orders to serve as a stretcher-bearer for the cars that arrived at night. There were about fifteen of us assembled under the porch for the same task.
Up till then I had merely seen my comrades who were wounded beside me in the trenches setting off on a long, mysterious journey of which we knew little. The wounded man was spirited away; he disappeared from the battle-field. I now learned to know all the stages of the dreary life which at that moment began for him.
The evening on which I began my duties there had been something going on over by Maurepas or Le Forest; it was between two great days of battle, one of those occurrences that sometimes fail to get even a line from the writer of the communiques. Nevertheless, the wounded streamed in all night. As soon as they were out of the cars we dispatched them into the main tent This was an immense canvas hall lighted by electricity. It had been set up in a stubble-field, and its rough floor was still bristling with dry grass and half-crushed lumps of turf. Those wounded who were able to walk were sent in line into a sort of passage between two railings, such as one sees at the entrance of theaters where the queue forms. They looked dazed and exhausted. They were relieved of their arms, cutlasses, and grenades; they submitted like children overcome with sleep. Then they were questioned. The great European massacre insists on order. Every act of the drama is regulated with minute exactness. As fast as the men filed past they were counted and enveloped in red tape; secretaries verified their identity with the cold exactness of custom-house clerks. As for them, they answered with the patience of the eternal public at the administrative wicket. At times they permitted themselves a reflection. One infantryman was asked:
"Your name is Menu?"
And the infantryman replied, with an air of distress: "Oh, yes! unfortunately!"
I recall one poor little fellow who carried his arm in a sling. A doctor consulted his files and said: "You have a wound in the right arm?"
And the man replied modestly: "Oh! it's not a wound, it's only a hole."
In one corner they were distributing food and drink; a cook was cutting portions of beef and also slicing a big round of gruyère cheese. The wounded were seizing the provisions in their hands, which were covered with earth and blood, and chewing them with slow delight. One divined that a great many were suffering most of all from hunger and thirst. They sat timidly on a bench, like poor people who have been asked into the refreshment-room at an entertainment.
Opposite these men were a score ot German wounded who had been unloaded there, helter-skelter. They dozed, or flung quick, hungry glances at the food and the pails of steaming tea. Recalling a famous jest, a gray-haired infantryman, who was stuffing large pieces of boiled beef between his jaws, suddenly said to the cook:
"Come now! A bit of the roast, no matter who they are!"
"Friends of yours?" said the cook, good-humoredly.
"Friends of mine, those cattle! We've rubbed elbows together the whole blessed day! Come, hand them over a bit of the roast, no matter who they are."
A spruce young man with a bony nose and shortsighted eyes added, in a reserved tone: "We must do it for the sake of our reputation."
And they continued to chat gravely, tossing off cups of boiling tea, which were poured out for them from a tin pitcher.
On the other side of the tent the spectacle was quite different: the wounded were all lying down; they were the seriously injured. Ranged side by side on the uneven ground, they formed a mosaic of suffering humanity, colored with the tints of war, dirt, and blood; smelling with the odors of war, sweat, and putrefaction; clamorous with the cries, the lamentations, the death-rattle that are the very voice and music of war.
This spectacle froze me with horror. I had known what it is to rise up for the slaughter, to go over the top, to be in at the death. I had to learn another horror, that of the "tableau," the swarm of prostrate victims, the sight of this vast hall with its mass of human larvae writhing on the floor.
I had finished my stretcher-bearing and I busied myself among the wounded with all the awkwardness of one who means well but has been too deeply moved. Some of them were vomiting, in the most frightful suffering, their foreheads streaming with sweat. The greater part were motionless and self-possessed, as if mindful of the inward progress of their ailment. One of them especially quite unnerved me. He was a little fair-haired sergeant with a delicate mustache. He was weeping in his hand with a despair that was like shame. I asked him if he was in pain. He could scarcely reply. Then gently lifting his covering, I saw that a machine-gun had cruelly wounded him. And I felt a profound compassion for his youth and his tears.
There was also a young boy who screamed out at regular intervals a curious lamentation, a lamentation of his own province of which I could only grasp these syllables: "Ah! mon . . . don . . . .ah! mon . . . don . . ."
A doctor who was passing said to him: "Come, have a little patience! Don't scream like that!"
The lad stopped a moment to reply: "You'd have to be without a voice not to scream."
And he immediately began again to cry: "Ah! mon . . . don . . ." keeping time as if this rhythm and these words were a necessary part of his agony.
Next to him was a rough fellow with heavy, powerful features, with that shape of the skull and that peculiar growth of hair that mark the men of Auvergne. He looked at the young boy who was groaning by his side and, turning to me, summed things up with a shrug of his shoulders: "Awful, isn't it?--to be smashed up like that boy, there!"
"How about you?" I said to him. "What have you got?"
"Oh! I?--It looks as if I hadn't any feet left. But I've got plenty of health. My carcass is whole."
And it was true: I saw that he had had both feet blown off.
The electric lights were surrounded by a loathsome nimbus. On the walls of the tent, in the folds, one saw great black clumps of sleeping flies, subdued by the chill of the night.
Little by little the room was emptied. Great billows rolled over the canvas and made it tremble or flap violently, agitated now by the wind, now by the shock of a gun.
I took a few cautious steps over the stretchers and found myself outside in the rumbling night, lighted up by the aurora borealis of the battlefield.
I was walking with my hands stretched in front of me and had just touched a railing; I had a sudden sensation of leaning over the balcony of hell.
What a human tempest! What an explosion of hate and destruction! One would have said that from those millions of sparks a band of giants were forging the horizon of the world, striking it with terrible blows. A great, continuous light, composed of an infinite number of fleeting gleams, shone, quivered, leaped up, dazzling earth and sky; iridescent sheaves spread out in the open heavens like the jets a pestle splashes up from a glowing smelter.
As I had just come out of the trenches, all these fireworks had meaning for me: they were requests, orders, despairing appeals, signals for slaughter; and I deciphered this blazing brazier as if it had been telling me in so many words all the fury and distress of the combatants.
In the direction of Combles, to the left of Maurepas, there was one point that burned more fiercely than all the rest. It was there that the two armies, the English and the French, joined each other; it was there that the enemy was concentrating insistently the tumultuous effort of his fire. Every night for two whole weeks I saw the same devouring flames blaze up at this spot. At every second it was so intense that that second gave the impression of being the decisive second. But hours, nights, months advanced slowly toward eternity, and each one of these terrible instants was only one paroxysm in an infinity of paroxysms. It is just so that the pain of a wound makes us imagine we cannot endure it any longer; but Death does not yield readily to the desire of men; she strikes at her own sweet will when she wishes, where she wishes, and will not often let herself be beguiled or advised.
Morning came. Those who have watched the dawns of war, after nights spent in battle or in the bloody work of the ambulances, have experienced one of the most dreadful, one of the saddest things in the world.
As for me, I shall never forget that green and jealous light, those wan lamps, those discouraged faces of men invaded by corruption, that shiver of morning cold, like the last icy breath of night that lingers in the benumbed foliage of great trees.
My task as stretcher-bearer was finished. I could return to my carpentering. I set to work shaping heavy pieces of green wood, while I thought of many things, such things as rise in the mind when it is deprived of slumber and steeped in bitterness.
About eight o'clock in the morning the whole population of flies saluted the sun, which was slowly disengaging itself from the mists; and these creatures began to give themselves up to their great daily orgy.
All those who were on the Somme during 1916 will retain forever the memory of the flies. The disorder of the battle-field, its richness in carrion, the abnormal accumulation of men, animals, spoiled food--all these causes brought about that year a formidable hatching of flies. They seemed to have assembled from all points of the globe to be present at an exceptional and solemn occasion.
They were of all species, and the world of men, delivered over to their hatred, remained without defense against this loathsome invasion. During a whole summer they were the mistresses, the queens, and they did not have to bargain for their food.
At Hill 80 I saw wounds swarming with larvae, a sight one had almost forgotten since the Battle of the Marne. I saw the flies hurl themselves upon the blood and pus of the wounds and gorge themselves with such drunken frenzy that you could seize them with your fingers or with a pair of pincers before they would consent to fly away and leave their feast. They spread all sorts of infections and gangrene. The army suffered cruelly from them, and it is really astonishing that the victory did not remain definitely with them.
There was nothing more desolate, more barren, than the plateau where the city of tents stood. Every morning heavy tractors climbed the hill of Etinehem and brought water to the camp. They filled a few scattered casks with a sweetish water, and for a whole day it was necessary to quench the thirst of the men and to wash away all the stains and soils of illness from this supply alone.
Not a bush, as far as the clumps of trees on the horizon! Not a tuft of fresh grass! Nothing but a boundless immensity of dust or slime, according to whether the face of the sky was serene or stormy. In order to bring some color into this desolation, some one had had the idea of doing a little gardening between the tents, and the wounded who were being taken down from the ambulances noticed with astonishment, amid the dreary bustle of military matters, the pale smile of a geranium or the little Gothic cathedrals of the juniper-trees, which had been pulled up from the rocky edges of the valley and replanted there, hastily, in the usual designs of French gardens.
I cannot recall without a strange emotion the tent under which a dozen soldiers, attacked with gas-gangrene, lay dying. All about this desperate place there ran a meager flower-bed, where a diligent man was trying placidly to make the salvias unfold their red bells.
At times the earth, overwhelmed with the August weather, swooned in the sudden gratification of a storm. On these days all the canvas of the tents flapped wildly, and they seemed like great lead-colored birds, clinging fast to the earth, the better to resist the blast.
But neither the dashing of the rain, the crashing of the thunder, nor any other furious assault of nature was able to distract these men from their task of war. On Hill 80 they continued to dress wounds and operate upon the wounded just as on the neighboring hills the artillery continued to tear up the disputed ground. Often it seemed as if man were determined to speak louder than heaven, and a sort of competition would take place between the guns and the thunder.
Once, I remember, the thunder had the last word: two sausage-balloons caught fire and the artillery, having lost its eyes, stammered for a while and then became silent.
At the end of a few days I was given carpentry-work to do in the tents, such jobs as setting up benches and shelves. I started out at once with my tools, and did my best not to disturb the patients, who were already sufficiently worn-out with the noise of the battle. I found this service a painful one, for it made me the helpless witness of every sort of misery. One day, however, I was present at a beautiful and touching scene. A young artilleryman was receiving a visit from his brother, an aspirant of a near-by regiment. The latter, very pale, was gazing upon the face of the wounded man, which was no longer anything but a blood-stained dressing and a glance; he had taken his hands and leaned forward, instinctively, as if to embrace him, but he drew back, only to lean forward again, a prey to mingled horror and compassion. Then the wounded man, who could not speak, had an inspiration that was full of tenderness and, disengaging his fingers, he began to stroke his brother's hair and face. This silent outpouring showed how willingly the soul renounces words when it seeks to convey its most intimate emotions.
Under the same tent Lieutenant Gambier died.
He was a simple man, rather worn, dedicated to some obscure civil employment, who by the sheer force of his steady courage had won an officer's stripes. A hemorrhage had just exhausted his big body and it took him two days to die. The breath of life took two days to leave his clay-cold members, which were covered with large drops of clammy sweat. From time to time he would sigh. Then, leaving my center-bit and my screw, I would go and ask him if he didn't need something. He would look at me, with wide eyes full of memory and sorrow, and say:
"I don't need anything, but I'm so wretched! Oh! I'm so wretched!"
I was almost glad to see him die; his unceasing agony was all too plain. Little Lalau, who died the same day, at least slipped off drowned in the unconsciousness of delirium.
He was a country lad; he had been wounded in the spinal marrow by a small fragment of shell. He developed a sort of meningitis and at once ceased to belong to the rational world. The pupils of his eyes swung from right to left with a dizzy rapidity; he moved his chin ceaselessly, like an animal chewing its cud. One day I found him devouring the rosary that the chaplain had placed about his neck. A nurse held his mouth open while we drew out a great number of fragments of wood and wire. The unfortunate fellow laughed softly, repeating: "It's hard, it's hard to chew!" and the lines in his face were shaken by a multitude of painful twitchings.
Delirium disconcerts, offends our souls as the supreme disorder: that is to say, of the power of judgment. But it expresses, perhaps, a kindness of nature, since it relieves the wounded man from the necessity of controlling his wretchedness. Life and death have these somber compensations. Once, for example, I saw a soldier who had been shot in so many places that the surgeons had decided his case was beyond the help of science. Among other injuries, his right wrist was transfixed by a long splinter of steel. The sight was so harrowing that they tried to pull the fragment out. A doctor had grasped it in his hand and was shaking it gently back and forth.
"Does it hurt you?" he asked, from time to time.
And the patient replied: "No; but I'm thirsty!"
"How is it possible," I asked the doctor, "how is it possible that what you are doing to him doesn't cause him pain?"
"It's because he's in a state of shock," the doctor replied.
And I realized how the very excess of suffering at times obtains for its victims a truce which is, in a way, a foretaste of annihilation, the prelude to the happiness of death.
At the end of each of the big rectangular tents they had put up one of those little conical tents which the soldiers call marabouts. These served as death-chambers. It was there they shut up the men who were beyond help, in a solitude preliminary to that of the tomb. Some of them seemed to know what it meant--that soldier, for instance, who was wounded in the abdomen and who, as he was taken under the round tent, asked them to give him a change of linen.
"Don't leave me to die in a soiled shirt," he kept repeating. "Only just give a a clean one. If you're in a hurry, I can put it on, myself, quite well."
At times, overcome by all this suffering, I would beg for duty outside the camp, in order to let some fresh air in upon my mind and renew the tenor of my reflections. It was always with a sigh of relief that I left the city of tents behind me. From a distance I would look back upon that sinister mass, which was not without points of resemblance to a traveling circus. I would seek among the white roofs and scarlet crosses the tops of the marabouts. I would look at the cemetery, where hundreds upon hundreds of bodies were buried and, reckoning up the sum of all the sorrow, despair, and fury heaped up in this one spot of earth, I would think of those people who in the interior of the country fill the café-concerts, the exhibitions, the moving pictures, the brothels--shamelessly enjoying themselves, the world and the season--and, sheltered by this trembling rampart of sacrifice, refuse to share in the universal distress. It was with shame even more than resentment that I thought of these people.
Those walks outside refreshed my heart, and I found a sort of comfort in the sight of healthy men whom the battle-field had spared.
Sometimes I went as far as the English sector. The long-distance artillery was used lavishly there. The guns were served by soldiers in their shirt-sleeves, in long trousers, smeared with oil and axle-grease, who looked much more like factory workers than military men. One realized there to what an extent war has become an industry, a mechanical and methodical enterprise for killing.
One evening, as I was passing over the Albert road, I overheard two men, seated on the edge of a ditch, talking. They had the accent of peasants from the North and probably belonged to regiments that were just coming back from the firing-line.
"In the future," said one of them, "those who want to mix in public affairs will have to be able to show that they've had a hand in it--in this war!"
But these frank words, unimportant and unechoed, overheard in passing at night on a road at the front, were lost in the tumult of the cannonade.
I was indebted for many things to my new occupation of stretcher-bearer. I was indebted to it for the opportunity to know men better than I had known them until then; to know them under a purer light, naked before death, stripped even of those instincts which disfigure the divine beauty of simple souls. In the midst of the most difficult ordeals our race of workers has remained vigorous, pure, worthy of the noble traditions of humanity. I have known you, Rebic, Louba, Ratier, Freyssinet, Calmel, Touche, and all you others whom I cannot name if I do not wish to name the entire country. It cannot be said that the wound chooses its victims; yet when I passed between the beds where your fate was being fought out, when I looked you one by one in the face, it seemed to me that you were all good, patient, energetic men, and that you all deserved to be loved.
Didn't you deserve it, Rebic, you gray-haired sergeant with a loving family awaiting you at home? One day they had just dressed the great wound you bore in your side, and we were crowding about you to put on your clean linen and remake your bed. You began to shed tears, good, simple man, and when we asked you the reason why, you gave this sublime answer: "I am weeping to see all the trouble I am causing you."
From Louba we could not expect words: the bursting of a shell had blown away his face. Nothing remained of it but an immense, barbarous wound, one crooked, displaced eye, and the forehead, the humble forehead of a peasant. One day, however, while we were saying some friendly words to him, Louba wished to show us his pleasure, and he gave us a smile. They will always remember it, those who saw the soul of Louba smile without a face.
Freyssinet, a boy of twenty, often gave way to delirium; in his moments of lucidity he would realize this and ask pardon of those whom it might have disturbed. The hour came when he knew at last the majestic repose of death. That day a much bedecked personage was going about through the tents with an imposing escort. He stopped at the foot of each bed and pronounced, in a pompous voice, a few words intended to show what an honor his mere address was for the wounded man. He stopped before Freyssinet's bed and began his discourse. As he was a man of importance and method, he said his whole say without noticing the many signals that were being made in his direction. When he had finished, however, he asked his attendants: "You wished to point something out to me?"
"Yes," they replied, "it was . . . that wounded man is dead."
But Freyssinet was so modest, so timid, that the whole attitude of his corpse expressed respect and confusion.
It was there, also, that I made the acquaintance of Touche.
He came to us, poor Touche, with his head broken, sent on from a poste de secours that had been destroyed by fire. I saw him, with his fumbling fingers, turn upside down an old duffle bag that contained all his possessions.
"No, no," he was saying, "they are certainly lost."
"What are you looking for?" I asked him.
"I am looking for the photographs of my two little boys and my wife. It's too bad, but they have lost them for me. I'll never see them again."
I helped him search for them, and as I did so I became aware that Touche was blind!
Poor Touche! He knew me quite well by my voice and always had a smile ready for me. He ate with the awkwardness of a man who is not yet accustomed to his infirmity. But he liked to get out of his difficulties by himself and would say to us, in a serene voice:
"I do the best I can, you see: I search about on the plate till I know there's nothing left."
Can I have forgotten the name of that one they brought to us one night, with his legs crushed, who murmured simply: "It's hard to die! Come! Come! I'll be brave!"
And then what was the name of that artless boy who in these words bade us be careful of his foot, which had been roughly used by a grenade: "Take good care of it, messieurs, for I'm not married yet."
But Calmel, Calmel--none of those who knew him would ever wish to forget him. Never did man more ardently desire to live. Never did man make himself more worthy of life by resignation and endurance. He was suffering from mortal wounds which his eyes, flashing with inner life, unceasingly denied. It was he who during a night bombardment, with all the authority of that dying voice of his, addressed his ward-mates and bade them be calm.
"Come, come!" he said. "We are all men here; aren't we?"
And such is the strength of the spirit that these mere words, uttered by a mouth like his, had the power to restore order and confidence in the hearts of all.
It was to Calmel that a plump civilian, entrusted with I know not what mission to the armies, said with jubilant conviction one day:
"You seem pretty badly hurt, my brave boy. But if you knew what wounds we are causing them, with our seventy-fives! Terrible wounds, my dear man, terrible!"
Each day brought visitors to Hill 80. They arrived from Amiens in sumptuous automobiles; they chatted as they crossed the great canvas room, which looked like an agricultural exhibition; they addressed a few words to the wounded, according to the nature of their own personal business, their opinions, their station in life. They jotted down memoranda in their note-books and at times consented to sup at the officers' table. There were foreigners among them--philanthropists, politicians, ladies of the stage, millionaires, novelists, and pamphleteers. Those who were seeking strong sensations were sometimes admitted into the conical tents or into one of the operating-rooms.
They would go away pleased with their visit when the weather was fine, and comfortably sure of having seen very unusual things, heroic warriors, a model institution.
But enough! I have pronounced your names, Freyssinet, Touche, Calmel, and they have left in my heart a memory too noble to be mingled with rancor. What has become of that deserted Hill 80? The battle moved toward the east. Winter came, the city of tents folded its canvas, like a fleet of sailing-vessels that must weigh anchor in search of new fortunes.
Often in my dreams I see again the bare plateau and the immense cemetery, stranded amid the misty plowlands, like the wreckage of a great fleet at the bottom of the sea.