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Letters of a Soldier - 1914-1915
Author: Anonymous
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March 3 (in a billet).

This is the fourth day of rest, for me almost a holiday time. Rather a sad holiday, I own; it reminds me of certain visits to Marlotte. These days have been spent in attempts to recover from physical fatigue and moral weariness, and in the filling up of vacant hours. Still, a kind of holiday, a halt rather, giving one time to arrange one's impressions, so long confused by the violence of action.

I have been stupefied by the noise of the shells. Think—from the French side alone forty thousand have passed over our heads, and from the German side about as many, with this difference, that the enemy shells burst right upon us. For my own part, I was buried by three 305 shells at once, to say nothing of the innumerable shrapnel going off close by. You may gather that my brain was a good deal shaken. And now I am reading. I have just read in a magazine an article on three new novels, and that reading relieved many of the cares of battle.

I have received a most beautiful letter from Andre, who must be a neighbour of mine out here. He thinks as I do about our dreadful war literature. What does flourish is a faculty of musical improvisation. All last night I heard the loveliest symphonies, fully orchestral; and I am bound to say that they owed their best to the great music that is Germany's.

After my experiences I must really let myself go a little in the pleasure of this furtive sun of March.

March 5 (6th day in billets).

I wish I could recover in myself the extreme sensibilities I felt before the fiery trial, so that I might describe for you the colours and the aspects of the drama we have passed through. But just now I am in a state of numbness, pleasant enough in itself, yet apt to hinder my vision of things present and my forecasts of things to come. I have to make an effort to keep hold of eternal and essential things; perhaps I shall succeed in time.

And yet certain sights on the wasted field of war had so noble a lesson, a teaching so persuasive, that I should love to share with you the great certainties of those days. How harmonious is death within the natural soil, how admirable is the manner of man's return to the substance of his mother earth, compared with the poverty of funeral ceremonial! Yesterday I thought of those poor dead as forsaken things. But I had been present at the burial of an officer, and it seems to me that Nature is more compassionate than man. Yes indeed, the soldier's death is close to natural things. It is a frank horror, a horror that does not attempt to cheat the law of violence. I often passed close to bodies that were gradually passing into the clay, and their change seemed more comforting than the cold and unchanging aspect of the tombs of town cemeteries. From our life in the open we have gained a freedom of conception, an amplitude of thought and of habit, which will for ever make cities horrible and artificial to those who survive the war.

Dear mother, I write but ill of things that I have greatly felt. Let us seek refuge in the peace of spring and in the treasure of the present moment.

March 7, half-past ten.

DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—I am filling up the idleness of this morning. I am rejoicing in the clear waters of the Meuse that give life to dales and gardens. The play of the current over weeds and pebbles makes a soothing sight for my tired eyes, and expresses the calm life of this big village that is sheltered by the Meuse hills. The church here is thronged with soldiers who possess, as I do, a definite intuition of the Ideal, but who seek it by more stated and less immediate means.

I am to board for a fortnight in the house in which, nearly two months ago, our joyous company used to meet. To-day I have seen the tears of these same friends, weeping to hear of the wounded and the dead.

I received your sleeping-sack, which is quite right. I am worried with rheumatism, which has spoilt many of my nights in billets these two months past.

Darling mother, here is a calm in the noise of that barrack-life which must now be ours. As there are none here but non-commissioned officers, they are all ordered to hard jobs, and I shall renew my acquaintance with brooms and burdens. We have been warned; we shall have to work with our hands. And so we learn to direct others.

March 7 (another letter).

Soft weather after rain. Bells in the evening; flowing waters singing under the bridges; trees settling to sleep.

March 11.

DARLING MOTHER,—I have nothing to say about my life, which is filled up with manual labour. At moments perhaps some image appears, some memory rises. I have just read a fine article by Renan on the origins of the Bible. I found it in a Revue des Deux Mondes of 1886. If later I can remember something of it, I may be able to put my very scattered notions on that matter into better order.

I feel as though I were recovering from typhoid fever. What I chiefly enjoy is water; the running and the sleeping waters of the Meuse. The springs play on weeds and pebbles. The ponds lie quiet under great trees. Streams and waterfalls. On the steep hillsides the snow looks brilliant and visionary. I live in all these things without forms of words. And I am rather ashamed to be vegetating, though I think all must pass through this phase, just removed from the hell of the front. I eat, and when my horrid rheumatism allows, I sleep.

Don't be angry with my inferiority. I feel as though my armour had been taken off. Well, I can't help it.

5 o'clock.

I am a good deal tired by drill. But the fine air of the Meuse keeps me in health. Dear mother, I wish I might always seek all that is noble and good. I wish I might always feel within myself the inspiration that urges towards the true treasures of life. But alas! just now I have a mind of lead.

March 14, Sunday morning, in the Sabbath peace.

DEAREST MOTHER,—Your good, life-giving letters have come at last, after my long privation, the price I paid for my enjoyment of rest. The pretty town is waking in the haze of the river, the waters hurry over their clean stones. All things have that look of moderation and charming finish that is characteristic of this part of the country.

I read a little, but I am so overtired by the physical exertion to which we are compelled, that I fall asleep on the instant. We are digging trenches and trenches.

Dear mother, to go back to those wonderful times of the end of February, I must repeat that my memory of them is something like that of an experiment in science. I had conceived violence under a theoretic formula; I had divined its part in the worlds. But I had not yet witnessed its actual practice, except in infinitely small examples. And now at last violence was displayed before me on such a scale that my whole faculty of receptiveness was called upon to face it. Well, it was interesting; and I may tell you that I never relaxed from my attitude of cool and impersonal watchfulness. What I had kept about me of my own individuality was a certain visual perceptiveness that caused me to register the setting of things, a setting that dramatised itself as 'artistically' as in any stage-management. During all those minutes I never relaxed in my resolve to see 'how it was.'

I was very happy to find that the 'intoxication of slaughter' never had any possession of me. I hope it will always be so. Unfortunately, contact with the German race has for ever spoilt my opinion of those people. I cannot quite succeed in quelling a sensibility and a humanitarianism that I know to be misplaced, and that would make me the dupe of a treacherous enemy; but I have come to tolerate things which I had held in abomination as the very negation of life.

I have seen the French soldier fight. He is terrible in action, and after action magnanimous. That is the phrase. It is a very common commonplace; our greatest writers and the humblest of our schoolboys have trotted it out alike; and now my decadent ex-intellectualism finds nothing better to say at the sight of the soul of the Frenchman.

To Madame de L.

March 14, 1915.

My mother has told me of the new trial that has just come upon you. Truly life is crushing for some souls. I know your fortitude, and I know that you are only too well used to sorrow; but how much I wish that you had been spared this blow! My mother had written to me of the lack of any news of Colonel B., and she was anxious. It is the grief of those dear to us that troubles us out here. But there is in the sight of a soldier's death a lesson of greatness and of immortality that arms our hearts; and our desire is that our beloved ones might share it with us. Be sure that the Colonel's example will bear magnificent fruit. I know, for I have seen it, what heroism transfigures the soldier whose leader has fallen.

As for myself, the time has been rife with tragedies; throughout I have tried to do my duty.

I saw all my superior officers killed, and the whole regiment decimated. There can be no more human hope for those who are cast into this furnace. I place myself in the hands of God, asking of Him that He would keep me in such a state of heart and soul as may enable me to enjoy and love in His creation all the beauty that man has not yet denied and concealed.

All else has lost proportion in my life.

March 15 (a post-card).

DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—I suppose that by now you know my good fortune in getting this platoon. Whatever God intends for me, this halt has given me the opportunity of regaining possession of myself, and of preparing myself to accept whatever may befall me. I send you my love and the union of our hearts in the face of fate.

March 17.

A charming morning. A white sun swathing itself in mist, the fine outlines of trees on the heights, and the great spaces in light. It is a pause full of good luck. The other day, reading an old Revue des Deux Mondes of 1880, I came upon an excellent article as one might come upon a noble palace with vaulted roof and decorated walls. It was on Egypt, and was signed George Perrot.

Yesterday my battalion left these billets. I am obliged to stay behind for my instruction as sergeant. How thankful I am for this respite, laborious as it is, that gives me a chance of recovering what I care for most—a clear mind, and a heart open to the spirit of Nature.

I forgot to tell you that a day or two ago, during the storm, I saw the cranes coming home towards evening. A lull in the weather allowed me to hear their cry. To think how long it is since I saw them take flight from here! It was at the beginning of the winter, and they left everything the sadder for their going. And now it was for me like the coming of the dove to the ark; not that I deceived myself as to the dangers that had not ceased, but that these ambassadors of the air brought me a visible assurance of the universal peace beyond our human strife.

And yesterday the wild geese made for the north. They flew in various order, tracing regular formations in the sky; and then they disappeared over the horizon like a floating ribbon.

I am much gratified by M.C.'s appreciation. I always had a love of letters, even as a child, and I am only sorry that the break in my education, brought about by myself, leaves so many blanks. I keep, however, throughout all changes and chances, the faculty of gleaning to right and left some fallen grain. Of course, as I leave out the future, I say nothing of my wish to be introduced to him in happier times—that is out of our department just now.

I have written to Madame L. It is the last blow for her. The fate of some of us is as it were a medal on which are struck the image and superscription of sorrow. Adversity has worked so well that there is no room for any symbol of joy. But I think that this dedication of a life to grief is not unaccompanied by a secret compensation in the conviction that misfortune is at last complete; it is something to reach the high-water mark of the waters of sorrow. The fate of such sufferers seems to me to be an outpost showing others whence tribulation approaches.

Day by day a new crop is raised in the little military burial-ground here. And, over all, the triumphant spring.

March 20.

Our holiday is coming to an end in sweetness, while all is tumult and carnage not far off. I think the regiment has had a long march.

March 20.

DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—After so many graces granted me, I ought to have more confidence, and I intend to do my best to give myself wholly into the hands of God; but these are hard times. I have just heard of the death, among many others, of the friend whose bed I shared in our billet. He had just been appointed Second Lieutenant. Mother dear: Love. That is the only human feeling we may cherish now.

March 21.

DEAR GRANDMOTHER,—As the day of trial draws near I send you all my love. I can do no more. We are probably called upon to make such a sacrifice as forbids us to dwell upon our ties. Let us pray that the certitude of Goodness and Beauty may not fail us when we suffer.

March 21, Sunday, with lovely sunshine.

DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—I think that we may be kept here one day more, and that we shall leave on Tuesday. I don't know where I shall rejoin my battalion, or in what state I shall find it, for the action seems to be violent and long. Rumours are very contradictory as to our gains. But all agree as to the large number of casualties. We can hear a tremendous cannonade, and the good weather no doubt induces the command on both sides to move.

I should have wished to say many things about the noble Nature that surrounds us with its glory, but my thoughts are gone on in advance, there where the sun does not see men gathered together to honour him, but shines only upon their hatred, and where the moon, too, looks upon treachery and anguish.

The other day, overlooking this great prospect of earth welcoming the spring, I remembered the joy I once had to be a man. And now to be a man——

Our neighbour regiment, that of R.L., has returned with a few of its companies reduced to some two-score men.

I dare not now speak of hope. The grace for which one may still pray is a complete sense of what beauty the passing hour can still yield us. It is a new manner of 'living one's life' that literature had not foreseen.

Dear Grandmother, how well your tenderness has served to keep me up in my time of trial.

March 22.

A splendid sun; looking on it one is amazed to see the world at war. Spring has come in triumph. It has surprised mankind in the act of hatred, in the act of outrage upon creation. The despatches tell us little, fortunately, of what is happening.

Being now these twenty-one days away from the front, I find it difficult to re-accustom myself to the thought of the monstrous things going on there. Indeed, dear mother, I know that your life and mine have had but one object, one aim, and that even in the time we are passing through, we have never lost sight of it, but have constantly tried to draw nearer.

Therefore our lives may not have been altogether useless. This is the only thought to comfort an ambitious soul—to forecast the influence and the consequences of its acts.

I believe that if longer life had been granted me I should never have relaxed in my purpose. Having no certainty but that of the present, I have tried to put myself to the best use.

March 25.

Here I am living this life in the earth again. I found the very hole that I left last month. Nothing has been done while I was away; a formidable attack was attempted, but it failed. The regiments ordered to engage had neither our dash nor our perfect steadiness under fire. They succeeded only in getting themselves cut to pieces, and in bringing upon us the most atrocious bombardment that ever was. It seems the action before this was nothing to be compared with it. My company lost a great many men by the aerial bombs. These projectiles measure a metre in height and twenty-seven centimetres in diameter; they describe a high curve, and fall vertically, exploding in the narrowest passages. We are several metres deep underground. Pleasant weather. At night we go to the surface for our hard work.

Dearest, I wanted to say a heap of things about our joys, but some of them are best left quiet, unawakened. All coarse, common pleasure would frighten them away—they might die.

I am writing again after a sleep. We get all the sleep we can in our dug-outs.

I had a pile of thoughts that fatigue prevents my putting in order; but I remember that I evoked Beethoven. I am now precisely at the age he had reached when disaster came upon him; and I admired his great example, his energies at work in spite of suffering. The impediment must have seemed to him as grave as what is before me seems to us; but he conquered. To my mind Beethoven is the most magnificent of human translations of the creative Power.

I am writing badly, for I am still asleep.

How easy, how kind were all the circumstances of my return! I left the house alone, but passing a battery of artillery I was accosted by the non-commissioned officers with offers of the most friendly hospitality. The artillery are devoted to the Tenth, for we defend them; and as the good fellows are not even exposed to the rain they pity us exceedingly.

I must close abruptly, loving you for your courage that so sustains me. Whatever happens, I have recovered joy. The night I came was so lovely!

March 26.

DEARLY BELOVED MOTHER,—Nothing new in our position; the organising goes on. Interesting but not easy work. The fine weather prospers it. Now and again our pickaxes come upon a poor dead man whom the war harasses even in his grave.

March 28 (on the heights; a grey Sunday; weather broken by yesterday's bombardment).

We are again in full fight. A great attack from our side has repeated the carnage of last week. My company, which was cut up in the last assault, was spared this time; we had nothing to do but occupy a sector of the defence. So we got only the splashes of the fighting.

On the loveliest Saturday of this spring I had a distant view of the battle; I saw the crawling beast that a battalion looks like, twisting as it advances under the smoke of the guns. The chasseurs a pied go forward in spite of the machine-guns and of the bombardment, French and German. These fine fellows did what they had to do in spite of all, and have made amends for the check we had last week when our attack was a failure.

For a month past I have been living Raffet's lithographs, with this difference, that in his time one could be an eyewitness in comparative safety at the distance where I stood, for the guns of those days did not shoot far. But I saw fine things in that great plain beneath our heights; a hundred thousand fires of bursting shells. And the chasseurs climbing, climbing.

Sunday, March 28 (2nd letter).

DEAR MOTHER,—Radiant weather rose this morning. I have been a long way over our sector, and now the bombardment begins again, and grows.

And still I turn my thoughts to hope. Whatever happens, I pray for wisdom for you and for me.

Dearest, I feel at times how easy it would be to turn again to those pursuits that were once the charm and the interest of my life. At times I catch myself, in this lovely spring, so bent upon painting that I could mourn because I paint no more. But I compel myself to master all the resources of my will and to keep them to the difficult straits of this life.

April 1.

A sun that lays bare the lovely youth of the spring. The stream of the Meuse runs through this rich and comely village, which the echoes of the cannonade reach only as a dull thud, their meaning lost.

We have had to change again, as the reinforcements are arriving in such numbers that our places are wanted; and it is always our regiment that has to turn out.

But to-day all is freshness and light. The great rich plain that is edged by the Meuse uplands has its distance all invested in the tenderest silver tones.

I am pleased with Gabrielle's letter; it shows me what things will be laid upon the heart of France when these events are at an end. A touching letter from Pierre, cured at last of his terrible wound. A splendid letter from Grandmother. How she longs for our meeting again! I cannot speak of it.

* * * * *

I finish this letter by the waterside, recalling with delight the joys I used to have in painting. Before me are the sparkling rays of spring.

April 3 (post-card).

Only a word from the second line. We are in the spring woods. Sun and rain at play in the sky. Courage through all.

April 3 (2nd letter).

I wish I had written you better letters in these days, every minute of which has been sweet to me, even when we were in the front line. But I confess that I was satisfied just to let myself live in the beauty of the days, serene days in spite of the clamours of war. We know nothing of what is to happen. But there is more movement—coming and going. Shall we have to bear the shock again?

Think what it was for us when we were last in the front line, to have to spend whole days in the dug-out that the odious bombardment had compelled us to hollow out of the hillside ten metres deep. There, in complete darkness, night was awaited for the chance to get out. But once my fellow non-commissioned officers and I began humming the nine symphonies of Beethoven. I cannot tell what thrill woke those notes within us. They seemed to kindle great lights in the cave. We forgot the Chinese torture of being unable to lie, or sit, or stand.

The life of a sergeant in billets is really quite pleasant. But I take no advantage. As to the front, I hope Providence will give me strength of heart to do my duty there to the very end. A good friend of mine, who was my section-chief, has been appointed adjutant to our company. This is all trivial enough; but, dearest, I am in a rather feeble state; I was not well after the events of last month. So I let myself glide over the gentle slopes of my life. Suppose one comes to skirt a precipice? May Providence keep us away from the edge!

April 4.

DARLING MOTHER,—A time of anxious waiting, big with the menace of near things. Meanwhile, however, idleness and quiet. I am not able to think, and I give myself up to my fate. Beloved, don't find fault with me if for a month past I have been below the mark. Love me, and tell our friends to love me.

Did you get my photograph? It was taken at the fortunate time of our position here, when we were having peaceful days, with no immediate enemy except the cold. A few days later I was made corporal, and my life became hard enough, burdened with very ungrateful labours. After that, the storm; and the lights of that storm are still bright in my life.

April 4, evening of Easter Sunday.

DEAR MOTHER,—We are again in the immediate care of God. At two o'clock we march towards the storm. Beloved, I think of you, I think of you both. I love you, and I entrust the three of us to the Providence of God. May everything that happens find us ready! In the full power of my soul, I pray for this, on your behalf, on mine: hope through all; but, before all else, Wisdom and Love.

I kiss you, without more words. All my mind is now set upon the hard work to be done.

April 5, 1 o'clock A.M.

DEAR MOTHER AND DEAR GRANDMOTHER,—We are off. Courage. Wisdom and Love. Perhaps all this is ordained for the good of all. I can but send you my whole love. My life is lived in you alone.

April 5, towards noon.

DEAR MOTHER,—We are now to be put to the proof. Up to this moment there has been no sign that mercy was failing us. It is for us to strive to deserve it. This afternoon we shall need all our resolution, and we shall have to call upon the supreme Wisdom for help.

Dear beloved Mother, dear Grandmother, I wish I could still have the delight of getting your letters. Let us pray that we may be strengthened even in what is before us now.

Dear Darling, once more all my love for you both.

YOUR SON.

April 6, noon.

DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—It is mid-day, and we are at the forward position, in readiness. I send you my whole love. Whatever comes to pass, life has had its beauty.

It was in the fight of this day, April 6, that the writer of these letters disappeared.

* * * * *

Printed by T. and A. CONSTABLE, Printers to His Majesty at the Edinburgh University Press

* * * * *

Transcriber's notes:

Periods added to a few date-lines to conform to rest of text.

Page 95, A space in the text was replaced with "us as". This has been surmised. "moves us as a Breughel . . ."

THE END

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