Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: Crows eddying round naked flesh with flapping banners and war-cries

Henri Barbusse: Crows eddying round naked flesh with flapping banners and war-cries


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

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray


I succeed in raising my face, and the wet waves of space assail my eyes. Patiently I pick out of the earthy pallor which blends all things some foggy shoulders, some cloudy angles of elbows, some hand-like lacerations. I discern in the still circle which encloses me — faces lying on the ground and dirty as feet, faces held out to the rain like vases, and holding stagnant tears.

Quite near, one face is looking sadly at me, as it lolls to one side. It is coming out of the bottom of the heap, as a wild animal might. Its hair falls back like nails. The nose is a triangular hole and a little of the whiteness of human marble dots it. There are no lips left, and the two rows of teeth show up like lettering. The cheeks are sprinkled with moldy traces of beard. This body is only mud and stones. This face, in front of my own, is only a consummate mirror.

Water-blackened overcoats cover and clothe the whole earth around me.


The distant sky is resonant, and each dull shot comes and pushes my shoulder. Nearer, some shells are thundering heavily. Though I cannot see them, I see the tawny reflection that their flame spreads abroad, and the sudden darkness as well that is hurled by their clouds of excretion. Other shadows go and come on the ground about me; and then I hear in the air the plunge of beating wings, and cries so fierce that I feel them ransack my head.

Death is not yet dead everywhere. Some points and surfaces still resist and budge and cry out, doubtless because it is dawn; and once the wind swept away a muffled bugle-call. There are some who still burn with the invisible fire of fever, in spite of the frozen periods they have crossed. But the cold is working into them. The immobility of lifeless things is passing into them, and the wind empties itself as it goes by.

Voices are worn away; looks are soldered to their eyes. Wounds are staunched; they have finished. Only the earth and the stones bleed. And just then I saw, under the trickling morning, some half-open but still tepid dead that steamed, as if they were the blackening rubbish-heap of a village. I watch that hovering dead breath of the dead. The crows are eddying round the naked flesh with their flapping banners and their war-cries. I see one which has found some shining rubies on the black vein-stone of a foot; and one which noisily draws near to a mouth, as if called by it. Sometimes a dead man makes a movement, so that he will fall lower down. But they will have no more burial than if they were the last men of all.

There is one upright presence which I catch a glimpse of, so near, so near; and I want to see it. In making the effort with my elbow on the horse’s ballooned body I succeed in altering the direction of my head, and of the corridor of my gaze. Then all at once I discover a quite new population of bronze men in rotten clothes; and especially, erect on bended knees, a gray overcoat, lacquered with blood and pierced by a great hole, round which is collected a bunch of heavy crimson flowers. Slowly I lift the burden of my eyes to explore that hole. Amid the shattered flesh, with its changing colors and a smell so strong that it puts a loathsome taste in my mouth, at the bottom of the cage where some crossed bones are black and rusted as iron bars, I can see something, something isolated, dark and round. I see that it is a heart.

Placed there, too — I do not know how, for I cannot see the body’s full height — the arm, and the hand. The hand has only three fingers — a fork – ah, I recognize that heart! It is his whom I killed. Prostrate in the mud before him, because of my defeat and my resemblance, I cried out to the man’s profundity, to the superhuman man. Then my eyes fell; and I saw worms moving on the edges of that infinite wound. I was quite close to their stirring. They are whitish worms, and their tails are pointed like stings; they curve and flatten out, sometimes in the shape of an “i,” and sometimes of a “u.” The perfection of immobility is left behind. The human material is crumbled into the earth for another end.

I hated that man, when he had his shape and his warmth. We were foreigners, and made to destroy ourselves. Yet it seems to me, in face of that bluish heart, still attached to its red cords, that I understand the value of life. It is understood by force, like a caress. I think I can see how many seasons and memories and beings there had to be, yonder, to make up that life, — while I remain before him, on a point of the plain, like a night watcher. I hear the voice that his flesh breathed while yet he lived a little, when my ferocious hands fumbled in him for the skeleton we all have. He fills the whole place. He is too many things at once. How can there be worlds in the world? That established notion would destroy all.


Now that I have made that effort, I can do no more, and my head lies there at the entrance to that world-great wound.

There is nothing now.

Yet there is that man. He was laid out like one dead. But suddenly, through his shut eyes, he smiled. He, no doubt, will come back here on earth, and something within me thanks him for his miracle.

And there was that one, too, whom I saw die. He raised his hand, which was drowning. Hidden in the depths of the others, it was only by that hand that he lived, and called, and saw. On one finger shone a wedding-ring, and it told me a sort of story. When his hand ceased to tremble, and became a dead plant with that golden flower, I felt the beginning of a farewell rise in me like a sob. But there are too many of them for one to mourn them all. How many of them are there on all this plain? How many, how many of them are there in all this moment? Our heart is only made for one heart at a time. It wears us out to look at all. One may say, “There are the others,” but it is only a saying. “You shall not know; you shall not know.”

Barrenness and cold have descended on all the body of the earth. Nothing moves any more, except the wind, that is charged with cold water, and the shells, that are surrounded by infinity, and the crows, and the thought that rolls immured in my head.

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