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Henri Barbusse: Manual laborers of war glutting the cannon’s mouth with their flesh


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Nobel prize in literature recipients on peace and war

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Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Chains (1924)
Translated by Stephen Haden Guest

Writer Henri Barbusse

Before me the ground rises so sharply that it overhangs me. On the steep slope is a network of barbed wire and struggling figures caught on it – or rather, they have stopped struggling now. A little higher up a small mound bristles with slender pointed stakes, and a shrapnel-screen of sheet iron, twisted like a rag.

I turn around to get my bearings and calculate the distance. This must be a section of the Odin Line, the German front line that was shown with little flags on pins that the Generals move so lightly.

And this is the place they attacked at dawn, on foot, with open eyes, a few hours ago.

There is no way through the entanglements! On the steep slope that leads up to that indistinct stronghold above, the rows of wire fences and entanglements are intact, – as neat as rows of beans in a market gardener’s plantation. Even now this fantastically hellish vine on the hillside is weighted with heavy shapes, half upright.

It was a lie, then, to say that “the preliminary barrage had destroyed all the enemy defences,” as our officers swore solemnly to their men, swore on their word of honour in order that their morale should not be lowered.

And this particular local incident – insignificant as it was – was eventually regularised and fixed for all time in a few words from the commander-in-chief: “We got our fingers badly pricked on the barbed wire; and just there, indeed, we were pretty badly had.”

There are statements that insidiously whittle down the truths they admit until their truth becomes a lie.

Those who lived so long must have seen those barbed wire entanglements as I saw them. And in them they saw the sign of their own death.

They faced the storms that would destroy whole cities with no more than the matchsticks of their rifles, the dwarfed metal of their bayonets, their clothes fragile as their own flesh, their helmets frail as the skulls they covered, and their poor wealth of lung and brain. They climbed that hill, knowing that the least bit of metal would pour out their blood upon the earth, knowing that they carried in their bare hands the sacred mystery of their lives, fair and delicate as a flower. They hurled their flesh, their thoughts, their happiness against the machines of steel, against the searing flame of torpedoes that tear out the bowels of the earth itself; they pitted their feeble heart-beats against the swift throb of the shell that swoops down on life and snatches it like a bird of prey. In full daylight they saw the short, vicious, red flame that spurts from the machine-gun and from rifles discharged point blank. All this they saw while they yet went forward – manual labourers of war – to kill rifles with bayonets, to stifle the machine-gun with their naked hands, to glut the cannon’s mouth with the mass of their flesh.


This rocky plain with its masses of sloping débris, treacherous, steel-threaded, holds no colour as far as the eye can see save the dirty brown of gall and dried blood. Who can tell what may have happened here? Even silence is dead. A sinister wind blows, but no one knows whence. It brings a gleam of sulphur, of verdigris. And I feel my face grow livid, and my fear write itself there for all men to see, fearful.


The dead are the real substance of the world. The owners of those charred hands that stuck out of the trench wall with a smell of scorched flesh have been scorched by the men who cleaned up the trench. The bodies that lie across the trench are hollowed in the middle because so many files of men have marched over them. And all left so carelessly, so openly, that it seems impossible that even their souls can have escaped mutilation. Bayonets bleeding with rust, heads rusty with blood. Faces formless and blackened; that lump there, an agglomeration of flints, has the baroque, terrible suggestion of the lower half of a face.

Mummified corpses with dead eyes, and hands so decayed that you can see daylight through them – whose heads are supported as if on wires, whose elbows prick through their sleeves, whose legs are no thicker than sticks – have been laid bare by the recent bombardment, together with the wooden crosses that are horribly like them. The long dead belched forth on top of the more recent corpses, whose red blood still trickles silkily. There everything new is buried under the older débris, under the whitened bones of the last generation, the dead of last year. A world turned upside down.

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