Alfred Neumann: Ten million lives for one man’s glory; the emperor changes his hat
From Empire (1936)
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul
Here is a remarkable head, crowned with a Kepi…Yes, the Emperor is wearing the Kepi of active service, like everyone else. His name is Napoleon, and…he will fulfill the warlike obligations of his name…There was a time, soldiers, you will remember, when he sported the famous little hat that was unique, that had been so frightfully individual when flaunted above the crater of a Europe vomiting wars and compelled to sacrifice ten million lives for the Corporal’s gloire…The times have changed, soldiers of the people; the Emperor will not send you to the front while he himself stays safe at home, as he did when he despatched you to the Crimea where pestilence raged as well as war…
This almighty and immense plain of the Po, adapted by nature and art for the production of food, is permanently hostile to destruction; the pregnant, peaceful earth is permanently antagonistic to war. The man in the Kepi, soldier and commander, stands at its very marge, and he has already become aware of God’s enmity. That is no feeling to animate a solider; and it may lead him in the wrong direction. It may lead him back into civilian dress, which he has just laid aside; to a civilian mood which would make him see or desire to see the critical and discontented professional generals of his immediate environment peep out throughout all the holes in this threadbare war…A fine horse, as quiet as a lamb, reins loose on the neck, was standing across the road, motionless, obedient, and indifferent. The Emperor rose a little in his stirrups, bent forward and to one side to look past the beast’s twitching neck into the ditch. In the ditch lay a volunteer voltigeur, whose legs in their red trousers were higher than his head, and higher than anything else were the boots, almost new boots made of good, solid leather. Not a button was missing from the white gaiters. Since a heavy soft-nosed bullet or a shell-splinter had cut off the top of the man’s skull, some kindly hand had laid a kepi over the dead face; not necessarily his own kepi, but Everyman’s kepi, the burning-red kepi. What is one to say when a kepi is used to cover something half of which is gone? A horrid position for a kepi, a lapse into non-entity, making mock of the gaiters and boots that were so beautifully uninjured. Of the poor mutilated face nothing more remained than the mouth with the prescribed imperial. Over what was non-existent above had been clapped the kepi, whose peak yawned to disclose the imperial, and the open mouth, through which the tongue protruded, and on which metallic looking blow-flies had already settled. Kepi looked down from horseback upon the kepi in the ditch, which showed him its tongue, and hos own goatee, as surviving remnants of young life. He did not hurry himself over his study of this “casualty”, and his suite had plenty of time to watch how the amateur commander-in-chief stood the grisly test. It was said that he turned quite yellow; but then he was always yellow of visage.
Yes, the amateur plan of campaign was both spirited and venturesome. Perhaps the victor of Marengo would have done the same thing, without a siege-train or bridge-building apparatus. But the War God would not have spent so many minutes looking at one dead soldier. He had left so long a train of corpses that if he has stopped to look at them all, he would have had no time to keep his eyes fixed on victory.
Still, Kepi must not be grudged that long look at his victim, and his almost theological understanding of the way in which the peaceful earth resisted war-making…