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Émile Zola: War’s vast slaughterhouse

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

Émile Zola: Selections on war

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Émile Zola
From La Débâcle (1892)
Translated by E. P. Robins

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In the vast drying-room, the wide door of which was standing open, not only was every bed occupied, but there was no more room upon the litter that had been shaken down on the floor at the end of the apartment. They were commencing to strew straw in the spaces between the beds, the wounded were crowded together so closely that they were in contact. Already there were more than two hundred patients there, and more were arriving constantly; through the lofty windows the pitiless white daylight streamed in upon that aggregation of suffering humanity. Now and then an unguarded movement elicited an involuntary cry of anguish. The death-rattle rose on the warm, damp air. Down the room a low, mournful wail, almost a lullaby, went on and ceased not. And all about was silence, intense, profound, the stolid resignation of despair, the solemn stillness of the death-chamber, broken only by the tread and whispers of the attendants. Rents in tattered, shell-torn uniforms disclosed gaping wounds, some of which had received a hasty dressing on the battlefield, while others were still raw and bleeding. There were feet, still incased in their coarse shoes, crushed into a mass like jelly; from knees and elbows, that were as if they had been smashed by a hammer, depended inert limbs. There were broken hands, and fingers almost severed, ready to drop, retained only by a strip of skin. Most numerous among the casualties were the fractures; the poor arms and legs, red and swollen, throbbed intolerably and were heavy as lead. But the most dangerous hurts were those in the abdomen, chest, and head. There were yawning fissures that laid open the entire flank, the knotted viscera were drawn into great hard lumps beneath the tight-drawn skin, while as the effect of certain wounds the patient frothed at the mouth and writhed like an epileptic. Here and there were cases where the lungs had been penetrated, the puncture now so minute as to permit no escape of blood, again a wide, deep orifice through which the red tide of life escaped in torrents; and the internal hemorrhages, those that were hid from sight, were the most terrible in their effects, prostrating their victim like a flash, making him black in the face and delirious. And finally the head, more than any other portion of the frame, gave evidence of hard treatment; a broken jaw, the mouth a pulp of teeth and bleeding tongue, an eye torn from its socket and exposed upon the cheek, a cloven skull that showed the palpitating brain beneath. Those in whose case the bullet had touched the brain or spinal marrow were already as dead men, sunk in the lethargy of coma, while the fractures and other less serious cases tossed restlessly on their pallets and beseechingly called for water to quench their thirst.

Leaving the large room and passing out into the courtyard, the shed where the operations were going on presented another scene of horror. In the rush and hurry that had continued unabated since morning it was impossible to operate on every case that was brought in, so their attention had been confined to those urgent cases that imperatively demanded it. Whenever Bouroche’s rapid judgment told him that amputation was necessary, he proceeded at once to perform it. In the same way he lost not a moment’s time in probing the wound and extracting the projectile whenever it had lodged in some locality where it might do further mischief, as in the muscles of the neck, the region of the arm pit, the thigh joint, the ligaments of the knee and elbow. Severed arteries, too, had to be tied without delay. Other wounds were merely dressed by one of the hospital stewards under his direction and left to await developments. He had already with his own hand performed four amputations, the only rest that he allowed himself being to attend to some minor cases in the intervals between them, and was beginning to feel fatigue. There were but two tables, his own and another, presided over by one of his assistants; a sheet had been hung between them, to isolate the patients from each other. Although the sponge was kept constantly at work the tables were always red, and the buckets that were emptied over a bed of daisies a few steps away, the clear water in which a single tumbler of blood sufficed to redden, seemed to be buckets of unmixed blood, torrents of blood, inundating the gentle flowers of the parterre. Although the room was thoroughly ventilated a nauseating smell arose from the tables and their horrid burdens, mingled with the sweetly insipid odor of chloroform.

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“Look, is he not dead, that man?”

“That’s so!” replied the attendant. “He may as well make room for someone else!”

He and one of his mates took the body by the arms and legs and carried it off to the morgue that had been extemporized behind the lilac bushes. A dozen corpses were already there in a row, stiff and stark, some drawn out to their full length as if in an attempt to rid themselves of the agony that racked them, others curled and twisted in every attitude of suffering. Some seemed to have left the world with a sneer on their faces, their eyes retroverted till naught was visible but the whites, the grinning lips parted over the glistening teeth, while in others, with faces unspeakably sorrowful, big tears still stood on the cheeks. One, a mere boy, short and slight, half whose face had been shot away by a cannon-ball, had his two hands clasped convulsively above his heart, and in them a woman’s photograph, one of those pale, blurred pictures that are made in the quarters of the poor, bedabbled with his blood. And at the feet of the dead had been thrown in a promiscuous pile the amputated arms and legs, the refuse of the knife and saw of the operating table, just as the butcher sweeps into a corner of his shop the offal, the worthless odds and ends of flesh and bone.

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Delaherche was white as a ghost; a thrill of horror ran down his back. He would have turned and fled, but time was not given him; the arm was already off. The soldier was a new recruit, a sturdy peasant lad; on emerging from his state of coma he beheld a hospital attendant carrying away the amputated limb to conceal it behind the lilacs. Giving a quick downward glance at his shoulder, he saw the bleeding stump and knew what had been done, whereon he became furiously angry.

“Ah, nom de Dieu! what have you been doing to me? It is a shame!”

Bouroche was too done up to make him an immediate answer, but presently, in his fatherly way:

“I acted for the best; I didn’t want to see you kick the bucket, my boy. Besides, I asked you, and you told me to go ahead.”

“I told you to go ahead! I did? How could I know what I was saying!” His anger subsided and he began to weep scalding tears. “What is going to become of me now?”

They carried him away and laid him on the straw, and gave the table and its covering a thorough cleansing; and the buckets of blood-red water that they threw out across the grass plot gave to the pale daisies a still deeper hue of crimson.

When Delaherche had in some degree recovered his equanimity he was astonished to notice that the bombardment was still going on. Why had it not been silenced? Rose’s tablecloth must have been hoisted over the citadel by that time, and yet it seemed as if the fire of the Prussian batteries was more rapid and furious than ever. The uproar was such that one could not hear his own voice; the sustained vibration tried the stoutest nerves. On both operators and patients the effect could not but be most unfavorable of those incessant detonations that seemed to penetrate the inmost recesses of one’s being. The entire hospital was in a state of feverish alarm and apprehension.

***

Below in the ambulance, indeed, they no longer knew where to bestow the cases that were brought them, and had been obliged to have recourse to the lawn, where they laid them on the grass. There were already two long rows of them, exposed beneath the shrieking shells, filling the air with their dismal plaints while waiting for his ministrations. The number of cases brought in since noon exceeded four hundred, and in response to Bouroche’s repeated appeals for assistance he had been sent one young doctor from the city. Good as was his will, he was unequal to the task; he probed, sliced, sawed, sewed like a man frantic, and was reduced to despair to see his work continually accumulating before him. Gilberte, satiated with sights of horror, unable longer to endure the sad spectacle of blood and tears, remained upstairs with her uncle, the colonel, leaving to Mme. Delaherche the care of moistening fevered lips and wiping the cold sweat from the brow of the dying.

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