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Octave Mirbeau: To the Soldiers of all Countries

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

French writers on war and peace

Octave Mirbeau: Selections on war

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Octave Mirbeau
To the Soldiers of all Countries
Unknown translator

I had occasion a few days ago to meet a Polish officer, a captain who had returned wounded from Manchuria. The captain told me tales of this shameful and atrociously useless war, tales that turn one sick, horrors which the most delirious imagination would be incapable of conceiving, even in the realms of nightmare. However hideous may have seemed to us certain episodes transmitted by the correspondents of the different newspapers, not one of them can approach the inconceivable ghastliness of those which were told me, of which I will select one, not having space in which to relate them all. And this is not the most terrible, but one can gain from it an idea of what others might have been. I dedicate this tale to the soldiers of all countries; and I leave the word to the Polish captain, and let him ask the soldiers of the world if they are not sick of killing and being killed.

“It was the evening after an engagement, which had turned out as usual unfortunate for us. We were in camp with gloomy faces, hopeless hearts and exhausted bodies. Nothing to eat, no ambulances, no wood for the fire – nothing! A frost of fifteen degrees below zero, which shredded the skin and froze the blood in our veins to ice. To remain immovable, to give way to sleep, was death. How many died that night! Imagine if you can this fearful thing – ten thousand men silent, ten thousand men motionless, not a footfall upon the frozen earth, not a voice, not a breath. Stragglers reaching the camp told us that they had heard in crossing the plain, to the right of them, to the left of them, behind them, before them, everywhere, cries, piteous complaints, frantic appeals, desperate shrieks…the wounded, the poor wounded ones lost in the black night. They had fallen across some, but had nothing upon which to carry them, and left them there!…And what would have been the good? What good?…But I exclaimed: ‘We must go and bring in the wounded, we cannot let them die there….Who will go with me?’ No answer. I spoke to the colonel ? he turned his back upon me. I appealed to a general?he passed by without a word. A surgeon of high grade, to whom I addressed myself, replied to me: ‘And where shall we put them? We have no stretchers, no bandages, no instruments, nothing! Let them alone!’ Not a word of justice, not one of pity, not one even of horror…nothing but complete indifference, because this is war, because all these men from colonel to soldier know that their turn will come to-morrow. But by dint of hard working I found a few old wheelbarrows, by dint of hot urging this lifeless mass, this frozen brute-life, yielded a hundred men. We set out…the night was very black…we had lighted torches, but after we had moved forward for an hour the cries of the wounded were better guides than the ghostly light of our torches. And from time to time we leapt back like frightened horses before piles of corpses, men and beasts. One moment I felt myself stopped, held, pinned to the ground. I felt two hands gripping my ankles like iron vices, I felt two hands creeping up my legs with iron clutches, clawing them, clenching them. And I felt a mouth biting the leather of my boots, snapping at it, tearing it, worrying it, and snarling like a dog. The soldiers ran towards me at my cries; they saw a wounded man with both legs torn off from the thighs twisting at my feet like a great human worm. They could not make him loose his hold, so they killed him with kicks of their boots and blows from their gun handles on the skull….And I lived through a minute, the horror of which, I assure you, I could never paint.”

He had become deathly pale. The pupils of his eyes were distended, as under the impression of a great horror. He continued:

“My heart swooned, my brain was torn with the madness of delirium. Frantic to escape from other visions of the night, I found strength to call the men about me. ‘Let them rot! Yes, let them rot, all of them,’ I shouted.

“We turned to go back to the camp, when all at once there arose upon our right a raving clamor, yells, roars, something more savage, more awe-striking than the shrieks of distress we had already heard. In spite of myself, so to say, I was drawn in the direction from which it seemed the sounds proceeded, and suddenly, springing from the shadows into the sickly light of the torches, I saw – not in fever, not in delirium – I saw ten, twenty, a hundred, two hundred men stark naked, gesticulating, grimacing, mouthing, laughing, shouting and dancing….Yes, in truth, in fifteen degrees of frost.

“I saw these naked bodies, with bleeding faces, with large red holes gaping in their breasts, with deep jagged cuts, with long purple gashes closed with lumps of black congealed blood…crawling over the earth, jumping upon raw bleeding stumps, some armed with revolvers and swords, which they brandished, shouting. And making towards us, who had come to their help, but whom they did not recognize, they cried, ‘Back! back !’ They were mad!”

After a silence, he added :

“Some shots were fired, one of our men fell. What was to be done ? We retreated. For many hours I remained with my escort at some distance from this crowd of the damned…their clamor rose higher still, then, little by little, it diminished…ceased….The frenzy of their madness had sunk, the frost had gripped them, in the morning they were dead…in the morning all the wounded upon the plain were dead!”

He spoke again:

“The next morning I was wounded myself…a bullet smashed the joint of my left shoulder….By a
miracle I escaped death, but I don’t know if I shall ever be cured. I am going to the south, where my family is. Since I saw that I don’t wish to live, for my life is horrible.

“Day or night it is impossible to escape from the torture of that ghastly nightmare…always…always that bloody human trunk gnawing at my feet. And always the madmen…the poor fools naked and bleeding in the night. You can never know….And I tell you….I ask myself sometimes whether I too am not going mad, whether I am not already mad!

“I would rather have died there!”

And while in the streets of Petersburg, Moscow, Vilna, Lodz and Batoum, while in all the rebellious towns of his vast empire, the Czar is commanding the soldiers to kill his people, that is what he is making of his soldiers in Manchuria.

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