Octave Mirbeau: All these wan faces, all these bodies already vanquished – toward what useless and bloody slaughters?
From Calvary (1886)
Translated by Louis Rich
The time passed, the rain kept steadily drumming on the hollow mess plates and the general continued swearing at the station master who in turn went on avenging himself verbally on the telegraph, the click of which became more and more violent and erratic. From time to time trains came up over-crowded with troops. Soldiers of the reserve, light infantry units, bare-breasted, bare-headed, with loose cravats, some of them drunk and wearing their kepis wrong side up, deserted the wagons where they were parked, invaded the taverns and even relieved themselves in public impudently. From this swarm of human heads, from this stamping on the floor of the cars by multitudes there emanated oaths, sounds of the Marseillaise, obscene songs which mingled with shouts of the gangs of workmen, with the tinkling of bells, with the panting of machines…I recognized a little boy from Saint-Michel whose swollen eyelids oozed, who coughed and spat blood. I asked him where they were going. He did not know. Having left Mans, they were held up at Connerre for twelve hours without food because of congestion on the road, — too crowded to lie down and sleep. He hardly had strength enough to speak. He went into a tavern to rinse his eyes with warm water. I shook hands with him, and he said he sincerely hoped that in the first battle the Germans would make a prisoner of him…And the train pulled out, disappeared in the night, carrying all these wan faces, all these bodies already vanquished – toward what useless and bloody slaughters?
With bodies rendered rigid by immobility and with dizzy heads, we pushed and jostled one another and resumed our breathless journey in the rain, in the mud, through the night!… To the right and the left of us there were long stretches of fields swallowed up in the shadows from which rose the crowns of apple trees which appeared to be twisted in the skies. From time to time the barking of a dog was heard from afar…There were deep forests, sombre thickets which rose like walls on each side of the road. Then came villages asleep, where our steps resounded even more mournfully, or where at a window quickly opened and quickly closed again, there appeared the vague outline of a human white form…terrified…Then again fields and woods and villages…Not a single song, not a single word, only an immense silence, accentuated by the rhythm of the tramping feet. The leather straps of the knapsack cut into my flesh, the rifle felt like a red hot iron bar placed upon my shoulder. For a moment I thought myself harnessed to a huge wagon, loaded with broad stone and stuck in the mud and felt that the carters were breaking my legs with the lashes of whips. With my feet planted in the ground, my spine bent in two, with outstretched neck, strangled by the bit, my lungs emitting a rattling sound, I was pulling and pulling…Pretty soon I reached a state where I was no longer conscious of anything. I was marching in a state of torpor, like an automaton, as if in a trance…Strange hallucinations flitted before my eyes. I saw a glowing road receding into space, lined with palatial mansions and brilliant lights…Strange scarlet flowers swayed their corollæ in the air on the top of flexible stems, and a crowd of gay people were singing at tables laden with refreshments and delicious fruit…Women with fluttering gauze skirts were dancing on illumined lawns, to the music of numerous orchestras hidden in the grove strewn with falling leaves, adorned with jasmines, sprinkled with water.
“Halt!” commanded the sergeant.
I stopped, and in order not to sink down to the ground I had to hold on to the arm of a comrade. I awoke from my trance…Darkness was all around me. We had come to the entrance of a forest, near a small town where the general and most of the officers went to find quarters. Having pitched my tent, I occupied myself with rubbing my feet, the skin of which was peeling off, with a candle which I had hidden in my knapsack, and like an emaciated dog, stretched myself out on the wet ground and immediately fell asleep. During the night, fellow-soldiers who, exhausted with fatigue, had dropped out of the ranks on the road, kept on coming into camp. Of these, five men were never heard from. It was ever so at each difficult march. Some of the men, weak or sick, fell into the ditches and died there; others deserted…
The next morning reveille was sounded at dawn. The night had been extremely cold, it never stopped raining and we could not get any straw litter or hay to sleep on. It was very difficult for me to get out of the tent; for a while I was obliged to crawl on my knees on all fours, my legs refusing to carry me. My limbs were frozen stiff like bars of iron, I could not move my head on my paralyzed neck, and my eyes which felt as if they had been pricked by numerous tiny needles, kept shedding tears in ceaseless streams…At the same time I felt an acute, lancinating, unbearable pain in my back and shoulders. I noticed that my comrades fared no better. With drawn faces of ghostly pallor they were advancing, some limping piteously, others bent down and staggering over clumps of underbrush — all lame, mournful and covered with mud. I saw several men who, seized with the colic, writhed and twisted their mouths, holding their hands to their bellies. Some of them were shivering with fever, and their teeth chattered with cold. All around us one could hear dry coughs rending human breasts, groans, short and raucous breathing. A hare ventured out of its cover and fled wildly, with its ears flapping, but no one thought of pursuing the animal as we used sometimes to do. After the roll call, foodstuffs were distributed, as the commissary regained our regiment. We made some soup which we ate as greedily as half-starved dogs.