Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: The mournful hearse of the army razes harshly

Henri Barbusse: The mournful hearse of the army razes harshly

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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 Chains (1924)
Translated by Stephen Haden Guest

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I have seen the army that was called forth from such distant lands.

Those that survive from the radiant setting-out – one in three – pass over the evening-heavy plains: their weight hollows the endless expanse.

From the margin of this twilight district that the mournful hearse of the army razes harshly, I leant forward and scrutinized the faces of the men, I saw only the ardour of despair. I knew, I felt within myself, their set eyes that were the prey of the sombre passion that they still desire to have and to devour alone.

They were dazzled, certainly, by the promises of earthly paradises that, uttered beneath vaults of stone or of blue sky, took fire among the poor. But as soon as there is but the thickness of a body between our bodies, I perceive clearly that the basic impatience that urges on these servants-at-arms, these valets, these little men, is that they are perpetually repulsed, driven. In their homelands they have never been aught save the torn beginnings of destinies. Some among these whom my eye swiftly embraces have fled remorse, but all have fled malediction. The fury of suffering is their spur. Rather than their former existence they will attempt anything, everything, things impossible. “Nothing can be worse!” and they surge toward the confines of the old world.

Each is weak, lost. Only their number, the vast expanse of their flesh and blood, gives them strength, and brings successive victories there where their stormy multitude has passed – behind the Teuton or English paladin silhouetted blackly against the great clouds like a heavy pothook affixed to a horse – with an ironmongerish head and a scything wing.

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The old, old, transparent man who knew everything was telling me, in slow-dropping words, the great things I already knew.

“The Empire was so broad and so weighty that of itself it split into parts…The earth – of its nature ordered, practical and sober – became an Empire. The heavy work, instead of falling lightly upon everyone, was completely overturned by mere chance, and heaped up into a great mound with some man or other at its apex: and Empire! – because a man stretched out his hand.”

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A father snatched from his fireside and his family-circle, where sleep had overtaken him: of what avail his strength now? Soldiers no more to be resisted than tigers – how often have I seen the like. Have I then wandered about the world in the skin and harness of a soldier, a wolfish explorer of life? God in Heaven! What have I done? Memories come back to me, they crowd upon me, they pass gently before my eyes – and rend my heart.

In vain I hide my eyes in my hands, I see right through my dirty soldier’s hands.

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