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Georges Duhamel: Mosaic of pain stained with mud and blood, the colours of war

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

Georges Duhamel: Selections on war

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Georges Duhamel
From Civilization, 1914-1918
Translated by T.P. Conwil-Evans

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From different points a burst of discharging shells sent up white clouds, side by side, in quick succession, like rows of trees on the roadside. In the open sky more than thirty balloons formed a ring, giving one the impression of spectators interested in a brawl.

The Adjutant, pointing out the tents, said to me, “That’s Hill 80. You will see more wounded passing there than there are hairs on your head, and more blood flowing than the water in the canal. All those who are hit between Combles and Bouchavesnes are brought to Hill 80.”

I nodded, and we relapsed again into silence and reflection. The day gave out in the unclean air of the marshes. The English were firing their big cannon not far from us, and their roar crashed along the alignment like an enraged horse dashing blindly away. The horizon was so thick with guns that you could hear a continuous gurgle as of a huge cauldron in the tormenting grip of a furnace.

The Adjutant turned again to me. “Three of your brothers have been killed,” he said. “In one sense you are out of the business. You won’t be very badly off as a stretcher-bearer. In another it is unfortunate, but a good thing for you. It’s hard work, stretcher-bearing, but it’s better than the line. Don’t you think so?”

I said nothing. I thought of that devastated little valley where I had spent the first few weeks of the summer in front of the Plémont hill – the deadly hours I spent looking at the ruins of Lassigny between the torn and jagged poplars, and the apple-trees blighted with the horror on the edge of the chaotic road, and the repulsive shell-holes full of green slime and swarming with life, and the mute face of the Château Plessier, and the commanding hill which a cosmic upheaval alone had made capable of giving rise to grim forebodings. There during the long nights I had breathed the fetid air of the corpse-laden fields. In the most despairing loneliness I had been in turn terrified of death and longing for it. And then some one came along one day to tell me that “You can go back behind the lines. Your third brother has been killed.” And many of the men looked at me, seeming to think with the Adjutant, “Your third brother is dead. In a sense you are lucky.”

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Far away, like idly moving rivers, large columns of dust marked all the roads in the district, and were filtered by the wind as they flowed over the countryside. The light of day was polluted with it, as the sky was ravaged by great flights of aeroplanes, and the silence violated and degraded, and the earth with its vegetation torn and mutilated.

I was not that day by any means disposed to be happy, but all this plunged me into the deepest gloom.

Looking all around me I found the only places where I could rest my eyes were in the innocent looks of the horses or on some unfortunate timid men who worked on the roadside. Everything else was nothing but a bristling gesture of war.

***

I got up with the dawn and, wandering through the mist, tried to find my bearings.

There was the road leading from Albert, worn, hollowed, and terrible overrun. It bore the never-ending stream of wounded. Alongside of it stood the city of tents with its streets, its suburbs, and its public squares. Behind the tents, a cemetery. That was all.

I was leaning on the fence and I was looking at the cemetery. Though it was overflowing, its appetite was insatiable. A group of German prisoners were occupied in digging long dark pits that were like so many open and expectant mouths. Two officers went by: one was fat and looked as if at any moment he would be struck with apoplexy. He was gesticulating wildly to the other. “We have,” he said, “got ready in advance 200 graves and almost as many coffins. No, you can’t say that this offensive has not been planned.”

***

The men were lying down: they had grave wounds. Placed side by side on the uneven ground, they made a mosaic of pain stained with mud and blood, the colours of war; reeking with sweat and corruption, the smells of war; noisy with cries, moans and hiccups which are the sounds and music of war.

I shivered at the sight. I had known the bristling horror of the massacre and the charge. I was to learn another horror, that of the tableau – the accumulation of prostrate victims, the spectacle of the vast hall swarming with human larvae, in heaps, on the floor.

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