Home > Uncategorized > Georges Duhamel: The stupid machine of war throws out, from minute to minute, bleeding men

Georges Duhamel: The stupid machine of war throws out, from minute to minute, bleeding men

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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 The New Book of Martyrs (1918)
Translated by Florence Simmonds

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I have come to take refuge among my wounded to smoke in peace, and meditate in the shadow. Here, the moral atmosphere is pure. These men are so wretched, so utterly humiliated, so absorbed in their relentless sufferings that they seem to have relinquished the burden of the passions in order to concentrate their powers on the one endeavour: to live.

In spite of their solidarity they are for the time isolated by their individual sufferings. Later on, they will communicate; but this is the moment when each one contemplates his own anguish, and fights his own battle, with cries of pain…

They are all my friends. I will stay among them, associating myself with all my soul in their ordeal.

Perhaps here I shall find peace. Perhaps all ignoble discord will call a truce on the threshold of this empire.

But a short distance from us the battle-field has thundered unceasingly for days. Like a noisy, complicated mechanism which turns out the products of its internal activity, the stupid machine of war throws out, from minute to minute, bleeding men. We pick them up, and here they are, swathed in bandages. They have been crushed in the twinkling of an eye; and now we shall have to ask months and years to repair or palliate the damage.

How silent they are this evening! And how it makes one’s heart ache to look at them! Here is Bourreau, with the brutal name and the gentle nature, who never utters a complaint, and whom a single bullet has deprived of sight for ever. Here is Bride, whom we fear to touch, so covered is he with bandages, but who looks at us with touching, liquid eyes, his mind already wandering. Here is Lerouet, who will not see next morning dawn over the pine-trees, and who has a gangrened wound near his heart. And the others, all of whom I know by their individual misfortunes.

How difficult it is to realise what they were, all these men who a year ago, were walking in streets, tilling the land, or writing in an office. Their present is too poignant. Here they lie on the ground, like some fair work of art defaced. Behold them! The creature par excellence has received a great outrage, an outrage it has wrought upon itself.

We are ignorant of their past. But have they a future? I consider these innocent victims in the tragic majesty of the hour, and I feel ashamed of living and breathing freely among them.

Poor, poor brothers! What could one do for you which would not be insufficient, unworthy, mediocre? We can at least give up everything and devote ourselves heart and soul to our holy and exacting work.

But no! round the beds on which your solitary drama is enacted, men are still taking part in a sinister comedy. Every kind of folly, the most ignoble and also the most imbecile passions, pursue their enterprises and their satisfactions over your heads.

Neither the four corpses we buried this morning, nor your daily agonies will disarm these appetites, suspend these calculations, and destroy these ambitions the development and fruition of which even your martyrdom, may be made to serve.

I will spend the whole evening among my wounded, and we will talk together, gently, of their misery; it will please them, and they will make me forget the horrible atmosphere of discussion that reigns here.

Alas! during the outburst of the great catastrophe, seeing the volume of blood and fire, listening to the uproar, smelling the stench of the vast gangrene, we thought that all passions would be laid aside, like cumbersome weapons, and that we should give ourselves up with clean hearts and empty hands to battle against the fiery nightmare. He who fights and defends himself needs a pure heart: so does he who wanders among charnel houses, gives drink to parched lips, washes fevered faces and bathes wounds. We thought there would be a great forgetfulness of self and of former hopes, and of the whole world. O Union of pure hearts to meet the ordeal!

But no! The first explosion was tremendous, yet hardly had its echoes died away when the rag-pickers were already at work among the ruins, in quest of cutlet-bones and waste paper.

And yet, think of the sacred anguish of those first hours!

Well, so be it! For my part, I will stay here, between these stretchers with their burdens of anguish.

At this hour one is inclined to distrust everything, man and the universe, and the future of Right. But we cannot have any doubts as to the suffering of man. It is the one certain thing at this moment.

So I will stay and drink in this sinister testimony. And each time that Beal, who has a gaping wound in the stomach, holds out his hands to me with a little smile, I will get up and hold his hands in mine, for he is feverish, and he knows that my hands are always icy.

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