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Arnold Zweig: Education Before Verdun

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Arnold Zweig: Selections on war

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Arnold Zweig
From Education Before Verdun (1935)
Translated by Eric Sutton

Since the middle of May the battle had come to a deadlock. Now, half-way through July, its formless shape still rolled over the low ground between Fleury village and Fort Souville, bloated and beyond all human compass, a swaying, heaving mass of explosions, swaths of acrid smoke, clouds of dust, pulverized earth, and shattered stone and brick-work, riddled through and through by steel splinters and whistling bullets. At night, cloven by the flash and roar of gunfire, the rattle of machine-guns, the crash of hand-grenades, the shouts and cries of stricken men; by day, the dust of the bayonet attack, the sweat of the attackers clambering out of their trenches, the ever-increasing hordes of dead and wounded swelled the turmoil. And not here alone; on the right and left banks of the Meuse, north and south of the Somme, among the southern spurs of the Alps, and in the Bukovina, for a fortnight the locked struggle had swung back and forward; but here its deadliest work was done, in the wreckage and upheaval of a once smiling countryside; and yet, since the end of February it had covered no more than ten kilometres of French soil from end to end, and at most twenty-five kilometres in breadth. But on that field French and Germans had each left sixty thousand dead; nor were they the last. Incessantly, by day and night, the Germans hurled their grey masses forward to the attack; like an elastic band, the French gave ground and then sprang forward once again; and when they yielded, they always left a number of their men wounded or prisoners in the hands of the attackers. The earth lay like a yellow-stained, blood-soaked disc, over which arched the mousetrap of the merciless blue sky, caging humanity in with the torments of its own brutality.

*****

The uproar in the starlit night, the explosions, the bursts of flame, the scream of hurtling shells – how long would it endure? Bertin could bear it no more; to him, half deafened, the repulsive dugout now seemed like a refuge; he stumbled down some steps, pushed aside a tarpaulin, and saw, by the dim illumination of a stearine cartridge, a squad of men sitting and lying about on a wire netting, their weapons ready to hand. The air was thick and smoke-laden. The faces of the sappers, the gunners, and the Saxon riflemen made him feel almost ill. Hitherto he had seen them against a background of glorious illusion; but here no illusion could survive. Here, in this clay and boarded tomb, were men for whom all hope had ended, throw-outs from the world markets now glutted with human material…

*****

The air had turned to thunder, and burst upon them in a thudding tornado of steel cylinders, packed with ekrasite. Impossible to leave the trenches, which indeed were trenches no more; impossible to stay in them, when the very earth quivered and split, and leapt in volcanoes to the sky or poured into ever fresh abysses that were opened on every side. The dugouts, in which the men took refuge, collapsed; the deeper galleries, choked by the heavy shells, buried their struggling, gasping occupants, who were of no further use as fighting men, though they might be actually unhurt…

*****

A gust of flame shot up. The bomb had hit the corridor, just between Room 6 and Ward 3. Seven or eight of the fugitives were flung in a struggling heap; splinters of iron sheeting, beams, burning wood, and blazing tarboards flew in all directions, and almost in a moment the whole outermost wing flared up like a funeral pyre. The wounded, bandaged as they were, beat and kicked and fought their way through the furthest of the three doors. From the wreathing, choking fumes and smoke came screams of agony, the groans of men trampled underfoot, and the yells of those caught by the licking flames. They were lucky whom the bomb had killed outright. On his bed, the planking around him all ablaze, lay the body of Pahl the compositor. Only his body; the wise head, so sorely needed by his fellow workers, had been shattered by the explosion like a hen stamped flat by a horse’s hoof. He had been fast asleep…But before his eyes had even opened, he was a corpse. Nothing would be left of him; the brain and skull were scattered, and the slow relentless flames reduced his disfigured body to the ashes into which his bed and the whole wing gradually collapsed…

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