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Henri Barbusse: Torture…agony…human sacrifices…

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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

Clara Zetkin and Henri Barbusse

Suddenly a dead man is in my path. I saw nothing of him until suddenly I came face to face with him where he bars my road. He is embedded in the brown wall of a shell-hole, huddled up, with his face covered by a handkerchief that is already stiffened by the cold. Just a heap of blue cloth, strangely shrunken with two sharp dislocated knees still supporting two cartridge cases from which protrudes a stiff hand, moulded in yellow and purplish wax. His boots are buried sideways from him, the legs horrible twisted. Beside the dead soldier sleeps his unharmed rifle.

And now I can see the dead everywhere. So many that, seemingly, I cannot have known how to look for them before. They are not easy to see, strangely smaller than you would expect, preternaturally small. You have to be immediately above them to distinguish the impress they make in the long grass. Three steps away you stop and say, “There’s something there.” Every shell-hole has its victim, like a landmark. You find them lying in every attitude: propped up against beds of trampled rushes beside a glimmer of water: Stretched out flat on back or stomach, hands clenched and feet twisted. Their miasma pollutes the sky, as the streams of blood pollute the earth beneath them. They are powdered with earth, smeared with mud, and their pulpy flesh is disfigured by blue or purplish growths, swollen or withered. They lift to the stars faces that are either torn and gashed, or very white, and smeared with copious rouge. Their staring eyes are like balls of spotted ivory. The explosions seem to have drowned some and set fire to others. Terribly greyish necks have been dislocated, and the spinal column broken and driven into the ground by the force of the explosion; some of the heads look as if some god of Chaos yet had them by the hair. And there are those who have been long dead, more tenuous, disappearing bit by bit from the face of the earth.

In most of the shell-holes. side by side with the drowned or buried men, lie fragments of geometrical designs in metal: circles and triangles of barbed wire. There particular craters were evidently there before this last attack…I call to mind the order we gave the day before the advance; fatigue parties were sent out to put up barbed wire entanglements in all the shell-holes and craters within reach – nominally to hold up counter-attacks, but actually to prevent any of the attackers from taking refuge therein. We had thought the measure natural and wise – and yet it is frightful to think of these traps that inflicted final agony on the hands that sought them out, driven down their slopes.

Torture…agony…human sacrifices…

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