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Henri Barbussse: As long as the colors of uniforms cover the flesh of men

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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

Writer Henri Barbusse

The banks are streaked with long, pale lines laid regularly side by side; looking more closely I see that they are dead bodies, tied together in couples. One head is tied up in a yellow check handkerchief. I recognise him, I recognise them all: the German prisoners. There they lie, as far as eye can see, a flat, streaming line, and a dark stream flows from them into the river.

At the end of the line something moves. A gesticulating shape rises up before me and says huskily:

“They put me on guard here…but there’s nothing to guard.” And the drunken sentry goes on:

“Our company finished them all. Our Captain saw to it. He gave us a strong dose of rum, the said: ‘Look here, my little lambs, these fellows are not wanted.’ Ha, Ha! we had to throw them down and clasp them as if they were women! We had to love them, ha, ha!”

He chuckled, and his breath came in gasps. On each side of his red nose I could see drops trickle down.

I looked away, and left him, drunk with his drunkenness.

A man digging a grave. Like it, he was dusk-coloured, waist-deep in the earth.

“What are you doing?

“Can’t you see?”

“What…?”

“A grave, of course.”

“Who’s dead?”

“He’s not dead yet. He is to die at daybreak, and they’ll bring him here directly. I’ve no time to waste. A reservist. Lost two nights’ sleep chasing round No Man’s Land looking for a pal’s body. Third night he was put on sentry duty and couldn’t keep awake. Colonel happened to pass that way, and as it was time to make an example of somebody, he reported him to the General, who said ‘Shoot him.’ He’s an old fellow of forty-five or so, with three children. Of course he didn’t do it on purpose. He only made a mistake, and nothing came of it. He’s a good sort. I know, because he was a friend of mine, before.”

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“War is necessary…Why? because we allow people to say so! Even a bitch won’t give up her puppies without a fight. But our mothers smile as they sacrifice their sons…”

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He was looking for a hole to hide in! A huge mass of white hot steel struck the running figure, and he was engulfed, together with the little raft of earth on which he had been a minute before. It was a second or two before the sound of the explosion reached me, and with it I heard – after the man himself had been blown to pieces – his piercing, living voice. This extraordinary cry from the beyond, this more than human call from a being who, sudden, spoke out all he contained within him, made me, for a moment, embody another soul; transmuted me from head to foot.

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War goes on not because it is efficiently run – it isn’t – but because it is a credit concern, entirely supported by the future; and the future is a blank: – and because nothing is counted, and there are too many men.

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A German and a Frenchman have fought to the death to escape being buried alive by one another. They are clasped now in death – inseparable – two eagles whose wings war has burnt. Between them is an eternal likeness – crying to heaven. When will be find a way to blazon this resemblance? In my mind a funeral march echoes faintly – I listen, captive and attent; it is lovelier far than anything I have ever imagined, and it invests me with splendour. But this hymn will remain buried, and will not speak its truth, as long as the colours of uniforms cover the flesh of men.

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Corpses fill the ruins; heaps of them simulate groups of the living. I am sitting on a stone; when one is utterly exhausted, suffering, one creates gentleness. From darkness a kind of light is forced out, and from silence, voices. They who are here are not those who endured, for they are soldiers – and all soldiers are strangers in houses, even in their own. How they all resemble each other, these great unknown humans.

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