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Henri Barbusse: The awful power of a dead man

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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

Barbusse

A sound of heavy tramping. Two stretcher-bearers with their burden – a stumbling rectangle – loom up before me. Their eight limbs are tautened to bear the weight of a stretcher, and a dead man. I flatten myself against the wall of the trench to let them pass. I watch them as they go by, crouched down over the stretcher that is swathed in a tent-cloth through which blood soaks from beneath, so that it sticks like a skin and brushes against me. The bearers do not glance at me. They plod steadily, heavily on, pale as death, their faces streaming with sweat, indistinct and lifeless: the machine-like regularity of harsh breathing that they draw in with all their strength. My eyes follow their bent backs, dislocated by the crushing weight that hangs on their tensed wrists. Where the trench curves they have to lift their pale load shoulder high – it sways and knocks against them as they raise it – and they carry it so until they reach the widened trench. One corner brings them into my sight, another hides them, but I can hear them grumbling forward.

And I realise, I feel in my joints, the superhuman effort needed to carry a dead body – that terrible load that distance so swiftly multiplies, through these yawning catacombs. I perceive how few minutes suffice to bring a bearer to the end of his natural strength. And suddenly I remember that a little further on there are corners in the rebuilt trench so narrow and so deep that the stretcher-bearers will find themselves trapped – it will be impossible for the poor monster that clings to them and battles with their will to pass through unless they stand him upright. But two men, however desperate, could never find the strength to carry another in that position, and the walls are too close together to permit the passage of a stretcher with more than two bearers…As to getting out and walking above ground – if you so much as attempt to breathe the air above you, you are a dead man. So the noise of their footsteps and of their voices, still faintly audible, echoes hellishly in my ears. The awful power of a dead man, one single man, a unity…A little earlier I had seen that that is only a point. Men, each man.

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It is evident that a mud-bespattered corpse had lain there, and his back has left a scaly stain. Yes, they have evacuated the wounded and the dead, but now I see blood everywhere.

Nothing can ever efface it. It has soaked into the very soil. The very stones, laid bare by a fall of earth, bleed. All these soft heaps of débris are wounds. The earth sweats blood and turns to decay…and everywhere now I sicken at the odour of death which abides here, surviving death.

I come and go seeking, I know not what in this endless succession of yawning pits and ditches; avoiding here and there the hollow greyish depths of a demolished well, on whose dusky waters float darker and more sinister shadows. On the summit of a mound, the remains of an iron pylene still stand. The trench-diggers found it there, and made use of it to prop up their parapet. It has been riddled by shrapnel, and seen against the background of the sky it is a sort of metallic lace. In a flash, it recreates before my eyes the whirlwind that must have passed over this place…I understand what horrors must have swept it, continuously, thus to have pierced holes through and through the hard iron.

***

I discover a deep imprint – the imprint of an open hand. Someone rested a hand here, on the brink of the last river, and lifted it only at that ultimate moment when the solid earth heaved and breathed fire and flame as terrible as lava from some lunar volcano. It seems as if among the débris left uncovered along all these walls that have melted away into waste like sand dunes I can detect traces of an earlier epoch, of an earlier race. As I look, the very earth seems to become flesh. I dare not walk, I dare not think.

In the inscrutable depths of the midnight sky – paling now under the rising moon – the sacrifice of the crucified front rank is re-enacted before my eyes. I see their defenceless bodies, their pale floating robes. And I see, despite all words and despite the spasm of anger furbished up at the last moment, – despite their bayonetted rifles pointed toward an enemy, that their gesture remains the gesture of suicide.

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