Mór Jókai: In the soldier’s march to glory each step is a human corpse
From God is One (1876)
Translated by Percy Favor Bicknell
“…I do not ask that we should fall upon our neighbours and burn their houses over their heads, but that we should be on our guard and defend ourselves and our families the best we know how. Believe me, brother, I am as good a Christian as the next man; I go to church every holy day, even when I am ill; but I feel easier, when I pray for my soul’s salvation, if I know my gun is loaded and primed.”
“Then you are no true believer in God,” returned Manasseh, in a tone of reproof. “You worship that Jesus in whose name the massacre of St. Bartholomew was perpetrated, the burning of heretics sanctioned, and the crusades undertaken; but you are no true follower of that Jesus who came with a message of peace and good-will to mankind, and who said to Peter, ‘They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'”
It was the very last day of July. The fields were dotted with sheaves of grain, and the farmers were hastening to gather them in. They had been surprised by countless numbers of crows and ravens which invaded the valley and filled the air with their hoarse, discordant cries. Those experienced in war knew that these birds were the usual attendants and heralds of armies.
Leaning on his gun, Manasseh thoughtfully observed the transformation of that earthly paradise into a scene of slaughter. He thought how, in times of peace, the cry of a single human being in distress would call ready succour and excite the warmest sympathy; but now, when men were dying by thousands, their fellows looked on in the coldest indifference. He asked himself whether this fearful state of things, this deplorable sacrifice of a country’s best and bravest sons, was a necessity, and must still go on for ages to come. And while he thus communed with himself he, too, held in his hands a weapon calculated to carry not only death to a valiant foe, but also sorrow and anguish to that foeman’s wife and mother, and perhaps destitution to his family.
A final and concentrated effort was determined upon. Reserves to the front! Cypress Hill was to be stormed once more. A battalion of yagers, the pride of the Austrian army, charged up the fatal hill and succeeded in taking it, after which the rattle of musketry beyond announced that the fight was being continued on the farther side.
At this point Manasseh’s battalion was ordered to hold the hill while the yagers were pushed farther forward. The order was obeyed, and then Manasseh learned what the cypress-crowned height really was: it was a cemetery, the burial-ground of the surrounding district, and each cypress marked a grave. But the dead under the sod lay not more closely packed than the fallen soldiers with whose bodies the place was covered. Cypress Hill was a double graveyard, heaped with dead and dying Frenchmen, Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, and Croatians, their bodies disfigured and bleeding and heaped in chaotic confusion over the mounds beneath which slept the regular occupants of the place.
In the soldier’s march to glory each step is a human corpse…