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Henri Barbusse: War befouls the country as it does faces and hearts


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

Nobel prize in literature recipients on peace and war

French writers on war and peace

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray


In the dull and pallid morning, on the approaches to a village, there appear gardens, which no longer have human shape. Instead of cultivation there are puddles and mud. All is burned or drowned, and the walls scattered like bones everywhere; and we see the mottled and bedaubed shadows of soldiers. War befouls the country as it does faces and hearts.


The artillery fire dazzles and then chokes up our sight. The heavens are making a tumult of blades.

Monuments of steel break loose and crash above our heads. Under the sky, which is dark as with threat of deluge, the explosions throw livid sunshine in all directions. From one end to the other of the visible world the fields move and descend and dissolve, and the immense expanse stumbles and falls like the sea. Towering explosions in the east, a squall in the south; in the zenith a file of bursting shrapnel like suspended volcanoes.

The smoke which goes by, and the hours as well, darken the inferno. Two or three of us risk our faces at the earthen cleft and look out, as much for the purpose of propping ourselves against the earth as for seeing. But we see nothing, nothing on the infinite expanse which is full of rain and dusk, nothing but the clouds which tear themselves and blend together in the sky, and the clouds which come out of the earth.

Then, in the slanting rain and the limitless gray, we see a man, one only, who advances with his bayonet forward, like a specter.

We watch this shapeless being, this thing, leaving our lines and going away yonder.

We only see one — perhaps that is the shadow of another, on his left.

We do not understand, and then we do. It is the end of the attacking wave.

What can his thoughts be — this man alone in the rain as if under a curse, who goes upright away, forward, when space is changed into a shrieking machine? By the light of a cascade of flashes I thought I saw a strange monk-like face. Then I saw more clearly — the face of an ordinary man, muffled in a comforter.

…When he has disappeared among the eddies, another follows him at a distance, and then another. They pass by, separate and solitary, delegates of death, sacrificers and sacrificed.


No doubt the moon has come out — I cannot see as high as the cloud escarpments, as high as the sky’s opening. But that blenching light is making the corpses shine like tombstones.

I try to find the low voice. There are two bodies, one above the other. The one underneath must be gigantic — his arms are thrown backward in a hurricane gesture; his stiff, disheveled hair has crowned him with a broken crown. His eyes are opaque and glaucous, like two expectorations, and his stillness is greater than anything one may dream of. On the other the moon’s beams are setting points and lines a-sparkle and silvering gold. It is he who is talking to me, quietly and without end. But although his low voice is that of a friend, his words are incoherent. He is mad — I am abandoned by him! No matter, I will drag myself up to him to begin with. I look at him again. I shake myself and blink my eyes, so as to look better. He wears on his body a uniform accursed! Then with a start, and my hand claw-wise, I stretch myself towards the glittering prize to secure it. But I cannot go nearer him; it seems that I no longer have a body. He has looked at me.

He has recognized my uniform, if it is recognizable, and my cap, if I have it still. Perhaps he has recognized the indelible seal of my race that I carry printed on my features. Yes, on my face he has recognized that stamp. Something like hatred has blotted out the face that I saw dawning so close to me. Our two hearts make a desperate effort to hurl ourselves on each other. But we can no more strike each other than we can separate ourselves.

But has he seen me? I cannot say now. He is stirred by fever as by the wind; he is choked with blood. He writhes, and that shows me the beaten-down wings of his black cloak.

Close by, some of the wounded have cried out; and farther away one would say they are singing — beyond the low stakes so twisted and shriveled that they look as if guillotined.

He does not know what he is saying. He does not even know that he is speaking, that his thoughts are coming out. The night is torn into rags by sudden bursts; it fills again at random with clusters of flashes; and his delirium enters into my head. He murmurs that logic is a thing of terrible chains, and that all things cling together. He utters sentences from which distinct words spring, like the scattered hasty gleams they include in hymns — the Bible, history, majesty, folly. Then he shouts:

“There is nothing in the world but the Empire’s glory!”

His cry shakes some of the motionless reefs. And I, like an invincible echo, I cry:

“There is only the glory of France!”

I do not know if I did really cry out, and if our words did collide in the night’s horror. His head is quite bare. His slender neck and bird-like profile issue from a fur collar. There are things like owls shining on his breast. It seems to me as if silence is digging itself into the brains and lungs of the dark prisoners who imprison us, and that we are listening to it.

He rambles more loudly now, as if he bore a stifling secret; he calls up multitudes, and still more multitudes. He is obsessed by multitudes.

“Men, men!” he says. The soil is caressed by some sounds of sighs, terribly soft, by confidences which are interchanged without their wishing it. Now and again, the sky collapses into light, and that flash of instantaneous sunshine changes the shape of the plain every time, according to its direction. Then does the night take all back again athwart the rolling echoes.

“Men! Men!”

“What about them, then?” says a sudden jeering voice which falls like a stone.

“Men must not awake,” the shining shadow goes on, in dull and hollow tones.

“Don’t worry!” says the ironical voice, and at that moment it terrifies me.

Several bodies arise on their fists into the darkness — I see them by their heavy groans — and look around them.

The shadow talks to himself and repeats his insane words:—

“Men must not awake.”

The voice opposite me, capsizing in laughter and swollen with a rattle, says again:

“Don’t worry!”

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