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Henri Barbusse: Butchery as far as the eye can see

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

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war

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Henri Barbusse
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray

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The railway bank was near, and in the network of wire stretched between it and us many bodies were fast-caught as flies.

The elements had gradually dissolved those bodies and time had worn them out. With their dislocated gestures and point-like heads they were but lightly hooked to the wire. For whole hours our eyes were fixed on this country all obstructed by a machinery of wires and full of men who were not on the ground. One, swinging in the wind, stood out more sharply than the others, pierced like a sieve a hundred times through and through, and a void in the place of his heart. Another specter, quite near, had doubtless long since disintegrated, while held up by his clothes. At the time when the shadow of night began to seize us in its greatness a wind arose, a wind which shook the desiccated creature, and he emptied himself of a mass of mold and dust. One saw the sky’s whirlwind, dark and disheveled, in the place where the man had been; the soldier was carried away by the wind and buried in the sky.

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We wandered five days, six days, in the lines, almost without sleeping. We stood for hours, for half-nights and half-days, waiting for ways to be clear that we could not see. Unceasingly they made us go back on our tracks and begin over again. We mounted guard in trenches, we fitted ourselves into some stripped and sinister corner which stood out against a charred twilight or against fire. We were condemned to see the same abysses always.

For two nights we bent fiercely to the mending of an old third-line trench above the ruin of its former mending. We repaired the long skeleton, soft and black, of its timbers. From that dried-up drain we besomed the rubbish of equipment, of petrified weapons, of rotten clothes and of victuals, of a sort of wreckage of forest and house — filthy, incomparably filthy, infinitely filthy. We worked by night and hid by day. The only light for us was the heavy dawn of evening when they dragged us from sleep. Eternal night covered the earth.

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Forward! Our nights are torn from us in lots. The bodies, invaded by caressing poison, and even by confidences and apparitions, shake themselves and stand up again. We extricate ourselves from the hole, and emerge from the density of buried breath; stumbling we climb into icy space, odorless, infinite space. The oscillation of the march, assailed on both sides by the trench, brings brief and paltry halts, in which we recline against the walls, or cast ourselves on them. We embrace the earth, since nothing else is left us to embrace.

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Ah, the infantry soldiers, the pitiful Wandering Jews who are always marching! They march mathematically, in rows of four numbers, or in file in the trenches, four-squared by their iron load, but separate, separate. Bent forward they go, almost prostrated, trailing their legs, kicking the dead. Slowly, little by little, they are wounded by the length of time, by the incalculable repetition of movements, by the greatness of things. They are borne down by their bones and muscles, by their own human weight.

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They plant us in subterranean files, facing a wide plain of gentle gradient which dips from the horizon towards us, a plain with a rolling jumble of thorn-brakes and trees, which the gale is seizing by the hair. Squalls charged with rain and cold are passing over and immensifying it; and there are rivers and cataclysms of clamor along the trajectories of the shells. Yonder, under the mass of the rust-red sky and its sullen flames, there opens a yellow rift where trees stand forth like gallows. The soil is dismembered. The earth’s covering has been blown a lot in slabs, and its heart is seen reddish and lined white — butchery as far as the eye can see.

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