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On the Somme, after the first day.


gduhamel1_cuI HAD NO desire for laughter, and yet at times I felt a vague longing to laugh. It was when I thought of those men who write about the war in the newspapers, saying: “The breach has been made. Why do we hesitate to fling fifty divisions into it?” or, “It remains only to mass reserves close to the front. Quick! Four hundred thousand men into the breach.”

I should have liked to set those fellows to work to find, between Fouilloy and Maricourt, a space big enough for the cat that purrs on their piles of strategical papers. They would have had a bit of a job.

As I walked along I mused over my affairs; from time to time I would cast a glance over the country-side, and I assure you I saw some curious things.

CN150excerptUnder the poplars that stretch down the length of the valley an immense army lay hidden, with its battalions, its animals, its wagons, all its artillery, its discolored tents, its evil smelling leather, its filth. The horses were nibbling the bark of the great trees, which were dying, the victims of a premature autumn. A surging mass were trying to hide themselves, as if the face of heaven were one vast betrayal. A trio of puny elms served as shelter for a whole encampment; a dusty hedge hid under its shadow the fighting equipment of an entire army. But the vegetation was sparse and the shelter scanty, so that the army over flowed everywhere across the naked plain, scraping the roads to the quick, until they showed their bare skeletons, streaking the fields with tracks like those left by the passage of great herds of wild animals.

There were joint roads where the French and the English moved side by side. There you saw filing past the fine British artillery, quite new, not rusty, but shining, covered with light-colored cloth, its horses selected for their coloring and all well fed and well groomed like circus mounts. Some infantry was going by also, nothing but young men. The flutes and drums of various sorts made a savage music for them, like that of the Senegalese. And then some great two-storied cars went by, carrying with scarcely a tremor the wounded who with their fair hair and their surprised expressions still had the placid look of Cook’s tourists.

OUR VILLAGES WERE filled to bursting. Man had thrust himself in everywhere, like an epidemic, like an inundation. He had driven the beasts from their quarters and installed himself in the stables, in the cattle-sheds, in the burrows. The stores of shells, here and there, looked like potteries full of earthenware jugs.

The slimy water of the canal was loaded with barges, carrying provisions, guns, hospital supplies.

A vehement vibration replaced the usual silence, caused by the breathing of all these beings and the grinding sound of their machines. The whole landscape suggested some sort of sinister kermess, some festival of war, some gathering of rowdies and gipsy bands.

braysommeThe closer we came to Bray, the more congested the country seemed. The automobiles ruled over the highways tyrannically, pushing out into the fields the humble convoys drawn by horses. Some little trucks, built close to the ground, their backs loaded with thousands of cartridges, showed their independence by tooting ostentatiously; between the cases men were squatting, half asleep, mutely testifying that it is sweet to be seated on some thing that does your walking for you.

When I arrived above Chipilly I saw a strange sight. A vast plateau rolled away, covered with so many men, objects, and beasts that over great stretches the earth was no longer visible. Beyond the ruined tower that rises above Etinehem extended a landscape that was brown, reddish, like a heath ravaged by fire. Later I found that this color was due to the accumulation of horses, crowded one against another. Every day they led twenty-two thousand to drink at the muddy watering-place in the Somme. They turned the trails into mire and filled the air with a formidable odor of sweat and dung.

FARTHER TO THE  left there rose a veritable city of unbleached tents, with red crosses quartered on their tops. Beyond this the ground dropped abruptly and stretched away toward the battlefield, trembling under its black smoke against the horizon. Here and there rose, side by side, puffs of smoke from a hail of shells, all in a line like trees along a road. There were thirty balloons or more in a circle high overhead, like curious idlers watching a quarrel.

The adjutant pointed to the tents and said to me:

“That ‘s Hill 80 over there! You’1l see more wounded go through that place than there are hairs on your head, and more blood flow than there is water in the canal. All those who fall between Combles and Bouchavesnes are brought there.”

hospitaltentsI nodded, and we returned to our reflections. The daylight was fading out in the dim mists of the marshes. Some heavy pieces of English artillery were firing not far away from us, and their sound hurtled over the plain like a furious charger, dashing blindly onward. The horizon was peopled with so many guns that one heard a continuous rumble like that of an immense caldron boiling over a brazier.

The adjutant turned to me again:

“You have had three brothers killed by the enemy. In one sense, you are out of it all. You will not be badly off as a stretcher-bearer. It’s unpleasant in a way, but it’s a whole lot better than being in the line; isn’t it?”

I did not answer. I was thinking of the desolate little valley, facing the ridge of Plemont, where I had passed the beginning of the summer. I had endured there hours of deadly tedium, watching through the shattered poplars the horror stricken apple-trees along the chaotic road, the shell-holes filled with a sickeningly green, oozing water, the mute, reproachful face of the castle of Plessier, and that frightful hill which only a cosmic upheaval could have thrown up from the dis mal depths of some dream. There, during long nights of guard duty, I had inhaled the fetid breath of fields thickly sown with corpses. In the solitude of utter despair I had experienced by turns the fear and the desire of death. And then, one day, they had come to me, saying, “You are to return to the rear; your third brother has just been killed.” And many who looked at me seemed to be thinking, as the adjutant thought: “Your third brother is dead! In a sense you ‘re in luck.”

I was thinking of all this as I made my way toward my new destination. We were picking our way over that plateau, raised like an altar toward the sky, loaded as if for a sacrifice with millions of creatures.

THERE HAD BEEN no rain for several days and we were living in the kingdom of dust. Dust is the toll exacted for fine weather; it permeates the hounds of war, mingles in their work, their food, their thoughts; it soils the lips, grits the teeth, and inflames the eyes. It spoils the honest joy of breathing. But when it disappears, the reign of mud begins, and the soul thrives better in dust than in mud.

soldats2In the distance great currents of dust like sluggish rivers marked all the roads of the country, spreading themselves all over the landscape at the will of the winds. It sullied the sunlight, as the sky was affronted by great flocks of aviators, as the silence was affronted and sullied, as the earth and its raiment of verdure were sullied and defiled.

I had little enough inclination for joy, as it was, but all this made me fairly drunk with misery.

As my glances fell on my surroundings, I could find no place on which to rest them but the innocent eyes of the horses or those of a few miserable, frightened men who were working along the rough roads. Save for them, the whole world was nothing but a bristling camp.

Night was falling as we reached the city of tents. The adjutant led me toward a tortoise and found a place for me on the straw, which smelled like a pig-pen. I set my pack down, stretched myself out, and went to sleep.

Georges Duhamel (1884-1966) was a doctor, poet, essayist, playwright, novelist and critic. This text is an excerpt from his Civilization 1912-1918 (translated here by  E.S. Brooks), for which he was awarded the Prix Goncourt. He was the editor of the Mercure de France and a member of the Académie française (seat 30).

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The text of Civilization (via Hathi Trust) is here:



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