The Forerunners (Romain Rolland)/XVII

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IN an earlier article I referred to the writings of certain French soldiers. After Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse, L'Holocauste by Paul Husson and the poignant meditations of André Delemer gave expression to their touching and profoundly human cry. In place of the scandalous idealisations of the war, manufactured far from the front—crude Épinal images, grotesque and false—they give us the stern face of truth, they show us the martyrdom of young men slaughtering one another to gratify the frenzy of criminal elders.

I wish to-day to make known another of these voices, more acerb, more virile, more vengeful, than the stoical bitterness of Husson and the despairing tenderness of Delemer. It is that of our friend Maurice Wullens, editor of "Les Humbles, the literary review of the primary school teachers."

He was severely wounded, and has just been given the war cross with the following honourable mention:

"Wullens (Maurice), soldier of the second class in the eighth company of the seventy-third infantry regiment, a good soldier to whom fear was unknown, dangerously wounded during the defence, against a superior force, of a post which had been entrusted to him."

In "demain," for August, 1917, we find the wonderful story of the fight in which this man was wounded and was then given brotherly help by the German soldiers. As he lay gasping, in expectation of the death-blow, a lad leaned over him smiling, holding out a hand, and saying in German, "Comrade, how do you feel?" And when the wounded man doubted his enemy's sincerity, the latter went on: "Oh, it's all right, comrade! We'll be good comrades! Yes, yes, good comrades." The tale is dedicated:

"To my brother, the anonymous Würtemberg soldier who, in Grurie Wood, on December 30, 1914, withheld his hand when about to slay me, generously saved my life;

"To the (enemy) friend who, in Darmstadt hospital, cared for me like a father;

"And to the comrades E., K., and B., who spoke to me as man to man."

This soldier without fear and without reproach, returning to France, discovered there the braggart army of the scribblers at the rear. Their venom and their stupidity infuriated him. But instead of taking refuge, like many of his comrades, in disdainful silence, he did what he had always done, and turned bravely to the attack upon "a superior force." In May, 1916, he became editor of a small magazine, entitled "Les Humbles," but which somewhat belies its name by the ruggedness of its accents and by its refusal to allow its voice to be stifled. He boldly declares:

"Emerged from the whirlwind of the war, but still struggling in its eddies, we do not propose to resign ourselves to the environing mediocrity, to content ourselves with the servile utterance of official platitudes.… We are weary of the daily and systematic stuffing of people's heads with official pabulum.… We have not abdicated any of our rights, not even our hopes."[1]

Each issue of the magazine was a fresh proof of his independence. At this juncture, reviews edited by young thinkers were springing up everywhere from among the ruins. That of Wullens took the leading place, owing to his force of character and his indomitable frankness.

He found a great friend in Han Ryner, who amid the European barbarians, amid the prevailing chaos, exhibits the calm of an exiled Socrates. Gabriel Belot, the engraver, another sage, who, knowing nothing of mental discord or ill-will, dwells on the Île St. Louis as if the two beautiful arms of the Seine sheltered him from the troubles of the world, lights up the most sombre of articles with the peace of his radiant designs.[2] Other friends, younger men, soldiers like Wullens, rallied to support him in the struggle for the truth. For instance, Marcel Lebarbier, poet and critic.

The most recent issue of "Les Humbles" contains excellent work. Wullens begins with a tribute to the rare French writers who have shown themselves during the last three years to be free-spirited humanists: to Henri Guilbeaux and his periodical "demain";[3] to P. J. Jouve, author of Vous êtes des hommes and of Poème contre le grand crime, whose sympathetic spirit vibrates and trembles like a tree to the wind of all the pains and all the angers of mankind; to Marcel Martinet, one of the greatest lyricists whom the war (the horror of the war) has brought forth, the writer of Temps maudits, a poem which will for ever bear witness to the suffering and the revolt of a free spirit; to Delemer, that moving writer; and to a few recently founded magazines. The editor of "Les Humbles" goes on to clear the ground of what he terms "the false literary vanguard," telling the chauvinist writers what he thinks of them. This lettered poilu, a blunt fellow, does not mince matters:

"I have come from this war whose praises you are singing—I who write.… I have my honourable mention, my war cross: I never wear it. I spent seven months as a war prisoner, before being sent home incapacitated by my wound. I could flood you with war anecdotes. I have no desire to do anything of the kind. Nevertheless I am writing a book on the war. I compress into it all that my heart has felt, all that one man has suffered during these months of unspeakable horror, and likewise all the joy he experienced when he came to perceive, by rare flashes of light, that humanity still lives, that kindliness still exists, on both sides of the Rhine, the world over. You, M. B., sing 'The war in which it is beautiful and sweet to die for our country!' All those who have faced this death will tell you that while it may have been necessary, it was neither beautiful nor sweet.—You glorify the sublime and tattered tricolour: blue is the blouse of our workmen; white is the cornette of our splendid sisters of charity.… You will excuse me for cutting you short before coming to the red, for my unaided memory here suffices me: the red blood of my wounds flowing and clotting on the frozen mud of Argonne that terrible morning in December, 1914; the red mud of pestilential slaughter-houses; the shattered heads of dead comrades; mangled stumps irrigated with peroxide solution so that the living corruption was half hidden by bloodstained foam; red visions glimpsed everywhere in these ghastly and tragical days, you chase one another through the mind tumultuous and hateful. Like the poet, I would fain say, 'A very little more and my heart would break!'"

To bring his philippic to a close he quotes another soldier-author, G. Thuriot-Franchi, who, in the same fighting style, with no pretty phrases and with no concealments, compels these Hectors of the study to swallow their boasts:[4]

"Men who are too young or too old, poets in pyjamas, jealous doubtless of the strategists in slippers, regard it as their duty to be lavish in patriotic song. The trumpets of rhetoric blare; invective has become the chosen method of argument; a thousand blue-stockings, under cover of the Red Cross, when one chats with them out strolling, make a parade of spartan sentiments, amazonian impulses Whence the plethora of sonnets, odes, stanzas, etc., in which, to speak the jargon of the ordinary critic 'the most exquisite sensibility is happily wedded to the purest patriotism.'—For God's sake leave us alone; you know nothing about it; shut up!"

Thus does a soldier from the front imperiously impose silence upon the false warriors of the rear. If they are fond of the "poilu" style, they will find plenty of it here. Those who have just been looking death in the face have certainly earned the right to speak the plain truth to these "amateurs" of death—the death of others.

"Revue mensuelle," Geneva, October, 1917.

  1. Words of Farewell (issue of May, 1917).
  2. Among these I may mention my article, To the Murdered Nations (Chapter III, above, from which the censorship deleted one hundred lines. The gaps were filled by Wullens with Belot's fine engravings (issue of May, 1917).
  3. Notwithstanding the sentence passed upon Guilbeaux since the passage in the text was written, my confidence in him is unshaken. I differ from him in many respects, but I admire his courage. To those who have known Guilbeaux intimately, his good faith is above suspicion.—R. R., August, 1919.
  4. G. Thuriot-Franchi, Les Marches de France.