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Bertha von Suttner: All Souls’ Day. Field of honor gives way to wasteland of broken hearts

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

Women writers on peace and war

Bertha von Suttner: Selections on peace and war

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Bertha von Suttner
From Lay Down Your Arms
The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling

Translated by T. Holmes

Crowds of graves, and the graves of crowds, were all around us. But a churchyard? – no. No pilgrim weary of life had there been invited to rest and peace; there, in the midst of their youthful fire of life, exulting in the fullest strength of their manhood, the waiters on the future had been cast down by force, and had been shovelled down into their grave mould. Choked up, stifled, made dumb for ever, all those breaking hearts, those bloody mangled limbs, those bitterly-weeping eyes, those wild shrieks of despair, those vain prayers.

On this field of war it was not lonely. There were many – very many – whom All Souls’ Day had brought hither, from friends’ and enemies’ country, who were come here to kneel down on the ground where what they loved most had fallen. The train itself which brought us was full of other mourners, and thus I had heard now for several hours weeping and wailing going on around me. “Three sons – three sons, each one more beautiful and better and dearer than the others, have I lost at Sadowa,” said to us an old man who looked quite broken down. Many others, besides, of our companions in the carriage mingled their complaints with his – for brother, husband, father. But none of these made so much impression on me as the tearless, mournful “Three sons – three sons” of the poor old man.

On the field one saw on all sides, and on all the roads, black figures walking, or kneeling, or painfully staggering along and breaking out from time to time into loud sobs. There were only a few there who were buried by themselves – few crosses or stones with an inscription. We bent down and deciphered, as well as the twilight permitted, some of the names.

“Major v. Reuss of the Second Regiment of the Prussian Guards.”

“Perhaps a relation of the one engaged to our poor Rosa,” I remarked.

“Count Grünne. Wounded, July 3. Died, July 5.”

What might he not have suffered in those two days! Was he, I wondered, a son of the Count Grünne who uttered, before the war, the well-known sentence: “We are going to chase the Prussians away – wet foot”? Ah, how frantic and blasphemous! how shrilly out of tune sounds of a surety every word of provocation spoken before a war when one stands on a place like this! Words, and nothing more, boasting words, scornful words, spoken, written and printed; it is these alone that have sown the seed of fields like these.

We walk on. Everywhere earth heaps, more or less high, more or less broad, and even there where the earth is not elevated, even under our feet, soldiers’ corpses are perhaps mouldering!

The mist grows thicker constantly. “Frederick, pray put your hat on, you will take cold.”

But Frederick remained uncovered, and I did not repeat my warning a second time.

Among the mourners who were wandering about here were also many officers and soldiers, probably such as had themselves shared in the nobly contested day of Königgrätz, and now were making a pilgrimage to the place where their fallen comrades were sleeping.

We had now come to the spot where the largest number of warriors, friend and foe together, lay entombed. The place was walled off like a churchyard. Hither came the greatest number of mourners, because in this spot there was most chance that their dear ones might be entombed. Round this enclosure the bereaved ones were kneeling and sobbing, and here they hung up their crosses and their grave-lights.

A tall, slender man, of distinguished, youthful figure, in a general’s cloak, came up to the mound. The others gave place reverently to him, and I heard some voices whisper: “The emperor”.

Yes, it was Francis Joseph. It was the lord of the country, the supreme lord of war, who had come on All Souls’ Day to offer up a silent prayer for the dead children of his country, for his fallen warriors. He also stood with uncovered and bowed head there, in agonised devotion, before the majesty of Death.

Long, long he stood without moving. I could not turn my eyes away from him. What thoughts must be passing through his soul, what feelings through his heart, which after all was, as I knew, a good and a soft heart? It came into my mind that I could feel with him, that I could think the thoughts at the same time as he, which were passing through that bowed head of his.

You, my poor, brave fellows, dead, and what for? No, we have not conquered. My Venice – lost. So much lost – ah, so much! and your young lives too. And you gave them so devotedly – for me. Oh, if I could give them back to you! I, for my part, never desired the sacrifice; it was for you, for your country, that you, the children of my country, were led forth to this war! And not by my means; no, not though it was at my order, for was I not compelled to give the order? The subjects do not exist for my sake. No, I was called to the throne for their sakes, and any hour have I been ready to die for the weal of my people. Oh, had I followed the impulse of my heart, and never said “Yes,” when all around me were shouting “War!” “War!” Still, could I have resisted them? God is my witness that I could not. What impelled me, what forced me, at this moment, I do not know exactly, only so much I know, that it was an irresistible pressure from without, from yourselves, ye dead soldiers! Oh, how mournful, mournful, mournful! How I have suffered for it all! and now you are lying here, and on other battlefields, snatched away by grape-shot and sabre-cuts, by cholera and typhus! Oh, if I had said “No!” You begged me to do so, Elizabeth. Oh, if I had said it! The thought is intolerable that – Oh, it is a miserable, imperfect world – too much, too much of woe!

During the whole time that I was thinking thus for him, I fastened my eyes on his features, and now – yes, just as I came to “too much – too much of woe” – now he covered his face with both hands, and broke out into a hot flood of tears.

So passed All Souls’ Day on the battlefield of Sadowa.

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