Home > Uncategorized > Arnold Zweig: They won no more ground than they could cover with their corpses

Arnold Zweig: They won no more ground than they could cover with their corpses

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

German writers on peace and war

Arnold Zweig: Selections on war

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Arnold Zweig
From Education Before Verdun (1935)
Translated by Eric Sutton

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The uncertain brilliance of the moonless starlit night grew more and more transparent, and the ear gradually began to locate all the manifold sounds of war. The ravines toward Douaumont lay under heavy fire. Rifle and machine-gun fire lashed the Poivre ridges. On the rubbish heap that had once been Louvemont red jets of flame shot up, vanished, and then came the detonation. Below him and beyond his vision, field kitchens, ammunition trucks, working parties with rolls of wire, posts and entrenching tools – horses, lorries and men. Franz [France] was lavish of his ammunition; yonder were dark-red bushes of fire breaking out in the valley to the left; about a hundred yards ahead, where nothing could be seen, a much-frequented footpath led to Herbe Bois. Kroysing thought he could hear shrieks. This little war was continually inscribing its initials in human skin, using for that purpose fresh shell-splinters, which the nations so liberally provided.

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The batteries of Fosses wood, and of Vavrille, were working at full strength; half-naked gunners, with men detailed to fetch and carry for them, observers in the trees, and telephonists at their apparatus; a night-shift in action. He knew them all, these damned shell-blacksmiths. Tomorrow the new battery would be established close by, and draw the French counter-fire on this placid valley. His heart ached for the scrap of woodland still left standing; and for every man that was there doomed to perish. And he felt sorry for himself, who at twenty-one had to recognize that human wickedness and its instinct for self-preservation were as active as the war, and even less to be evaded. Then he leaned against the wreckage of a wall, his hair blown over his boyish face, his hands against his lean cheeks, half crouching and half-sitting. Such was Verdun, thought he: it had changed but little in all these weeks except the front line had shifted slightly further forward; they had won no more ground than they could cover with their corpses.

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In the half-light the rats, as large as lanky cats, scurried over the ground. He must really shoot a few dozen of them next day. Although they grew much fatter nearer to the front lines, they never deserted the ruins of the stables where they had been born.

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A few kilometres ahead, at that very moment machine-guns were sweeping the ravaged earth beneath the limelight of the flares; thousands of men were crouching in potholes or behind breastworks, trying to withstand the merciless hurricane of fire, smothered in earth, gashed or riddled with shell-splinters, mangled by direct hits, poisoned or choked by gas. But here, a mile and a half away, a man of about thirty slept right through a bomb attack, withdrawn into the securest and profoundest refuge allotted to mankind, akin to that of unconsciousness and the grave.

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The men looked pale and desperate; the lips of many were quivering so much that they could not smoke; many a country lad was saying his rosary; only a couple of blustering young townsmen talked as if they did not care…They conceived of Douaumont as a volcano in whose entrails they were now to be engulfed. Rumours had reached them of a terrible explosion inside it, as a result of which more than a thousand men had perished, no one knew how. They had been told this by the sappers, the foremen of their labours, whose quarters they were now to share. Many of them pretended they knew further details of the disaster, which might happen again any day. An entire battalion of dead, said the sappers. So no one was in a hurry to put one foot before the other.

…What sort of smell reached those reluctant noses? The smell of ruined masonry, human excrement, stale explosive, and dried blood.

***

The city was surrounded by a ring of entrenched forts, in several lines, some modern and some of older date. For over against the city, far away to the east and yet menacingly near, rose the colossus of the German Reich, which owed allegiance to the glorification of war…On February 21, 1916, after intense preparation, shells hurtled into the streets of the city, struck down citizens, split the skulls of children, and flung old women down their stairs; fire and smoke and tumult and destruction. Aircraft bombs whistled down upon the quarters that were out of reach of the long-range guns.

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More and more rounds of ammunition were hurled into the infinite; more and more men were shattered, killed, maimed, lost, and taken prisoner. A quarter of a million men had been sacrificed by the French army in the defence of Verdun, including nearly seven thousand officers, while the German army had lost even more. The lovely little villages had first been ruined, then wrecked, until they were finally no more than tumbled heaps of bricks; the woods, first gashed and tangled, were reduced to battlefields of pallid stumps, and finally to a desert.

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[P]andemonium had broken loose above the roofs; guns – they boomed and sang and screamed, they gurgled and they rattled and they clanged, again, again, and yet again…A repulsive noise, an outrage upon nature, announcing its evil origin from afar. Bertin of the A.S.C. sat and listened with a heavy heart. But he did not hear the sound of implements made by human hands, for the scope and the use of which men were responsible. For him it was a primeval force that roared above his head, like an avalanche, for which natural laws were responsible, not men. The war, projected and maintained by human agency, appeared to him more and more as in the guise of a storm decreed by fate, a release of malignant elements, not amenable to judgment nor accountable to anyone.

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At last the hillside towered above them to the fort, like a mountain with a fragment ripped off by an explosion. Even in dreams Bertin had never seen such a spectacle. Like a piece of diseased skin under a microscope, the earth displayed its cankered and corroded wounds. It looked scorched and porous, threaded by a vein-like network of torn roots. In one shell-hole lay a bundle of spoiled hand-grenades, thrown no doubt for safety into the standing water at the bottom. Fragments of stuff fluttered from heaps of barbed wire – a sleeve with its buttons, cartridge cases, the remains of a machine-gun belt – human excrement everywhere…

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