Home > Uncategorized > Émile Zola on war mania: A blind and deaf beast let loose amid death and destruction, laden with cannon-fodder

Émile Zola on war mania: A blind and deaf beast let loose amid death and destruction, laden with cannon-fodder


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

Émile Zola: Selections on war


Emile Zola

From the last chapter of Nana (1880)
Translated by George Holden

[Paris 1870]

The darkness was deepening, and in the distance gas-lamps were lighting up one by one. Meanwhile curious faces could be seen at the windows, while under the trees, the human flood swelled from one minute to the next, till it ran in one enormous stream from the Madeleine to the Bastille. The carriages in its midst rolled along slowly. A dull murmuring came from this dense mass of people, silent as yet, who had left their homes out of a desire to form a crowd, and were now shuffling along, their blood stirred by the same fever. But suddenly a strong movement divided the throng. Among the jostling, scattering groups, a band of men in workman’s caps and white smocks had appeared, uttering a regular cry which had the rhythmical beat of hammers on an anvil.

“To Berlin! To Berlin! To Berlin!”

Nana dead! It was a blow for them all. Without a word Muffat had gone back to the bench, his face buried in his handkerchief. The others burst into exclamations, but they were cut short by another group that passed by howling:

“To Berlin! To Berlin! To Berlin!”

These shadowy masses rolling by in a dizzying human flood exhaled a sense of terror, a pitiful premonition of future massacres. Broken cries came from their throats as they rushed in a fever of excitement towards the unknown, out of sight beyond the dark wall of the horizon.

“To Berlin! To Berlin! To Berlin!”

The room was empty. A great breath of despair came up from the boulevard and filled out the curtains.

“To Berlin! To Berlin! To Berlin!”


From the end of La Bête Humaine (1890)
Translated by Leonard Tancock

Now out of control, the engine tore on and on. At last the restive, temperamental creature could give full rein to her youthful high spirits, like a still untamed steed that had escaped from its trainer’s hands and was galloping off across country. The boiler was full of water, the newly stoked furnace was white-hot, and for the first half-hour pressure went up wildly and the speed became terrifying. The front guard had presumably succumbed to exhaustion and gone to sleep. The soldiers, whose drunkenness was getting worse through their being so tightly packed, suddenly saw the funny side of this mad race and sang louder than ever. They went through Maromme like a rocket. No more whistling before signals or through stations, just the all-out gallop of an animal charging head down and silent between obstacles. The engine ran on and on as though lashed to madness by the strident sound of her own breath.

They should have taken water at Rouen, and the station was transfixed with horror when this mad train rushed past in a whirlwind of smoke and flame, the engine without driver or fireman and cattle-trucks full of troops yelling patriotic songs. They were off to war and this was to get them sooner to the banks of the Rhine. Railwaymen gasped and waved their arms. Suddenly there was one general cry: that driverless train would never get clear through Sotteville station, which was always blocked by shunting operations and cluttered up with vehicles and engines like all large depots. They rushed to send a warning by telegraph. A goods train standing on the line could, as it happened, be backed into a shed just in time, for the roar of the escaping monster could already be heard in the distance. It had charged through the two tunnels on either side of Rouen and was approaching at a furious pace, like some prodigious, irresistible force that nothing could now stop. It scorched through the station at Sotteville, finding its way unscathed through the obstacles, and plunged into the night again, where the roar gradually died away.

By now all the telegraph bells along the line were ringing and hearts were beating fast as the news came through about the ghost train seen going through Rouen and Sotteville. It made you shake with fright; an express running ahead was bound to be caught up with. But the train, like a wild boar in the forest, held to its course, heedless of the red lights and detonators. At Oissel it almost smashed into a light engine, it terrified Pont de-l’Arche, for its speed showed no sign of slackening. Yet again it vanished, on and on into the darkness, whither no one knew.

What did the victims matter that the machine destroyed on its way? Wasn’t it bound for the future, heedless of spilt blood? With no human hand to guide it through the night, it roared on and on, a blind and deaf beast let loose amid death and destruction, laden with cannon-fodder, these soldiers already silly with fatigue, drunk and bawling.


Auguste Andre Lancon:
After the Battle of Sedan


From the final chapter of The Debacle (1892)
Translated by E. P. Robins

When at about nine o’clock the train from Sedan, after innumerable delays along the way, rolled into the Saint-Denis station, the sky to the south was lit up by a fiery glow as if all Paris was burning. The light had increased with the growing darkness, and now it filled the horizon, climbing constantly higher up the heavens and tingeing with blood-red hues some clouds, that lay off to the eastward in the gloom which the contrast rendered more opaque than ever.

The travelers alighted, Henriette among the first, alarmed by the glare they had beheld from the windows of the cars as they rushed onward across the darkling fields. The soldiers of a Prussian detachment, moreover, that had been sent to occupy the station, went through the train and compelled the passengers to leave it, while two of their number, stationed on the platform, shouted in guttural French:

“Paris is burning. All out here! this train goes no further. Paris is burning, Paris is burning!”

Henriette experienced a terrible shock. Mon Dieu! was she too late, then? Receiving no reply from Maurice to her two last letters, the alarming news from Paris had filled her with such mortal terror that she determined to leave Remilly and come and try to find her brother in the great city. For months past her life at Uncle Fouchard’s had been a melancholy one; the troops occupying the village and the surrounding country had become harsher and more exacting as the resistance of Paris was protracted, and now that peace was declared and the regiments were stringing along the roads, one by one, on their way home to Germany, the country and the cities through which they passed were taxed to their utmost to feed the hungry soldiers. The morning when she arose at daybreak to go and take the train at Sedan, looking out into the courtyard of the farmhouse she had seen a body of cavalry who had slept there all night, scattered promiscuously on the bare ground, wrapped in their long cloaks. They were so numerous that the earth was hidden by them. Then, at the shrill summons of a trumpet call, all had risen to their feet, silent, draped in the folds of those long mantles, and in such serried, close array that she involuntarily thought of the graves of a battlefield opening and giving up their dead at the call of the last trump. And here again at Saint-Denis she encountered the Prussians, and it was from Prussian lips that came that cry which caused her such distress:

“All out here! this train goes no further. Paris is burning!”

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