The Forerunners (Romain Rolland)/XVIII

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




ART is stained with blood. French blood, German blood, it is always the Man of Sorrows. Yesterday we were listening to the sublime and gloomy plaint which breathes from Barbusse's Under Fire. To-day come the yet more heartrending accents of Menschen im Krieg (Men in Battle). Although they hail from the other camp, I will wager that most of our bellicose readers in France and Navarre will flee from them with stopped ears. For these tones would be a shock to their sensibilities.

Under Fire is more tolerable to these carpet-warriors. There reigns over Barbusse's book a specious impersonality. Despite the multitude and the sharp outline of the figures on his stage, not one of them has a commanding role. We see no hero of romance. Consequently, the reader feels less intimately associated with the hardships recounted on every page; and these hardships, like their causes, have an elemental character. The immensity of the fate which crushes, lessens the agony of those who are crushed. This war fresco resembles the vision of a universal deluge. The human masses execrate the scourge, but accept it passively. Under Fire growls forth a threat for the future, but has no menace for the present. Settling-day is postponed until after peace has been signed.

In Men in Battle, the court is sitting; mankind is in the witness-box, giving testimony against the butchers. Mankind? Not so. A few men, a few chance victims, whose sufferings, since they are individual, appeal to us more strongly than those of the crowd. We follow the ravages these sufferings make in tortured body and lacerated heart; we wed these sufferings; they become our own. Nor does the witness strain after objectivity. He is the impassioned pleader who, just delivered panting from the rack, cries for vengeance. The writer of the book now under review is newly come from hell; he gasps for breath; his visions chase him; pain's claws have left their mark upon him. Andreas Latzko[2] will, in future days, keep his place in the first rank among the witnesses who have left a truthful record of Man's Passion during 1914, the year of shame.

The work is written in the form of six separate stories, united only by a common sentiment of suffering and revolt There is no logical plan in the arrangement of the six war episodes. The first is entitled "Off to War"; the last, "Home Again." Between, we have "Baptism of Fire," a picture of wounded men; and "A Hero's Death." The centre piece is devoted to "The Victor," the great general, the master of the feast, the responsible and beflattered chief. In the last three stories, physical pain exposes its hideous countenance like that of Medusa mutilated. The two opening stories deal with mental pain. The hero of the centre piece sees neither the one nor the other; his glory is throned on both; he finds life good, and war even better. From the first page to the last, revolt mutters. But on the last page revolt culminates in a murder; a soldier, back from the front, kills a war profiteer.

I give an analysis of the six stories.

"Off to War" (Der Abmarsch) has for its scene the garden of a war hospital in a quiet little Austrian town thirty miles from the front. It is an evening late in autumn. The tattoo has just sounded. All is quiet. From afar comes the sound of heavy guns, as if huge dogs were baying underground. Some young wounded officers are enjoying the peace of the evening. Three of them are talking gaily with two ladies. The fourth, a Landsturm lieutenant, in civil life a well-known composer, sits gloomily apart. He has had a severe nervous shock, and is utterly prostrated, so that not even the arrival of his fair young wife enables him to pull himself together. When she speaks to him, he is unmoved. When she tries to touch him, he draws irritably away. She suffers, and cannot understand his enmity. The other woman takes the lead in the conversation. She is a Frau Major, a major's wife, who spends all her time at the hospital and has acquired there "a peculiar, garrulous cold-bloodedness." She is surfeited with horrors; her endless curiosity gives the impression of hardness and hysterical cruelty. The men are discussing, what is "the finest thing" in the war. According to one of them the finest thing is to find oneself, as this evening, in women's company.

"… For five months to see nothing but men—and then all of a sudden to hear a dear woman's clear voice! That's the finest thing of all. It's worth going to war for."

One of the others rejoins that the finest thing is to have a bath, a clean bandage, to get into a nice white bed, to know that for a few weeks you are going to have a rest. Number three says:

"The finest thing of all, I think, is the quiet—when you've been lying up there in the mountains where every shot is echoed five times, and all of a sudden it turns absolutely quiet, no whistling, no howling, no thundering—nothing but a glorious quiet that you can listen to as to a piece of music! The first few nights I sat up the whole time and kept my ears cocked for the quiet, the way you try to catch a tune at a distance. I believe I even shed a tear or two—it was so delightful to listen to no sound."

The three young men tease the last speaker good-naturedly, and they all laugh together. Every one of them is intoxicated by the peace of the sleeping town and the autumn garden. Every one of them wants to make the most of his time, to lose nothing, "to take everything easily with his eyes tight shut, like a child before it enters a dark room."

Now the Frau Major breaks in, breathing more quickly as she speaks:

"… But, tell me, what was the most awful thing you went through out there?"

The men purse up their lips. This theme does not enter into their program. Suddenly a strident voice speaks out of the darkness:

"Awful? The only awful thing is the going off. You go off to war—and they let you go. That's the awful thing."

A glacial silence follows. The Frau Major makes a bolt for it, to escape hearing the sequel. On the pretext that she has got to get back into the town, and that the last tram is just leaving, she takes with her the unhappy little wife, to whom the husband's words have come as a veiled reproach. The officers are left alone, and one of them, hoping to change the current of thought in the sick man's mind, passes a friendly compliment upon the wife's appearance. The other springs to his feet and says in a fury: "Chic wife? Oh, yes. Very dashing! … She didn't shed a tear when I left on the train. Oh, they were all very dashing when we went off. Poor Dill's wife was, too. Very plucky. She threw roses at him in the train, and she'd been his wife for only two months.… Roses! He, he! 'See you soon again!' They were all so patriotic! …"

He goes on to recount what happened to Dill. Poor Dill was showing to his comrades the new photograph his wife had sent him, when an exploding shell sent a boot flying against his head. In the boot was the leg of a cavalryman who had been blown to pieces many yards away. On the boot was a great spur which stuck into Dill's brain. It took four of them to pull the boot out, and a piece of brain came away with the spur, looking "just like a grey jellyfish." One of the officers, horrified by the tale, rushed away for the doctor. The latter, on arrival, tried to coax the sick man to go in:

"You must go to bed now, Lieutenant.…"

"Must go, of course," repeated the lieutenant emphatically, heaving a profound sigh. "We must all go. The man who doesn't go is a coward, and they have no use for a coward. That's how it is. Don't you understand? Heroes are in fashion now. The chic Madame Dill wanted a hero to match her new hat. Ha, ha! That's why poor Dill had to have his brains spilled. I must go; you must go; we must all go to die.… The women look on, plucky, because that's the fashion now.…"

He gazed round questioningly.

"Isn't it sad?" he asked softly. Then, in a fury once more, he cried:

"Weren't they humbugging us? … Was I an assassin? Was I a swashbuckler? Didn't I suit her when I sat at the piano playing? We were expected to be gentle and considerate! Considerate! And all at once, because the fashion changed, they wanted us to be murderers. Do you understand? Murderers!"

Speaking now in a lower tone, he went on plaintively:

"My wife was in the fashion too, of course. Not a tear! I kept waiting, waiting for her to begin to weep, to beg me to get out of the train, not to go with the others—beg me to be a coward for her sake. But none of them had the pluck to do that. They all wanted to be in the fashion. Mine too! Mine too! She waved her handkerchief, just like the others."

His twitching arms writhed upwards, as though he were calling the heavens to witness.

"You want to know what was the most awful thing? The disillusionment was the most awful thing—the going off. The war wasn't. The war is what it has to be. Did it surprise you to find out that war is horrible? The only surprising thing was the going off. To find out that women are cruel—that was the surprising thing. That they can smile and throw roses; that they can give up their husbands, their children, the little boys they have put to bed a thousand times, tucked up a thousand times, have fondled, have created from their own flesh and blood. That was the surprise. That they gave us up—that they sent us—actually sent us. For every one of them would have been ashamed to stand there without a hero. That was the great disillusionment.… Do you think we should have gone if they had not sent us? Do you think so? … No general could have done anything if the women hadn't allowed us to be packed into the trains, if they had screamed out that they would never look at us again if we became murderers. Not a man would have gone if they had sworn never to give themselves to one who had split open other men's skulls or shot and bayoneted his fellows. Not one man, I tell you, would have gone. I didn't want to believe that they could stand it like that. 'They're only pretending,' I thought. 'They're just holding themselves in. But when the whistle blows they'll begin to scream, and tear us out of the train, and rescue us.' That one time they had the chance to protect us. But all they cared about was to be in the fashion! …"

He broke down, and collapsed once more on to the bench. He began to weep. A little circle of people had formed round him. The doctor said gently:

"Come, come, Lieutenant, let's get along to bed. Women are like that, you know, and we can't help it."

The sick man leapt to his feet in a rage.

"Women are like that? Women are like that? Since when? Since when? Have you never heard of the suffragettes who boxed the ears of ministers of state, who set museums on fire, who chained themselves to lampposts, all for the sake of the vote? For the sake of the vote, do you hear? But for the sake of their men? Nothing!"

He paused to take breath, overwhelmed with a throttling despair. Then, fighting with sobs, like a hunted beast, he cried out:

"Have you heard of one woman throwing herself in front of the train for the sake of her husband? Has a single one of them slapped a statesman's face, or tied herself to the railway lines, for our sake? Not one has had to be saved from such desperate courses.… The whole world over, not one of them has moved a finger for us. They drove us forth! They gagged us! They gave us the spur, like poor Dill. They sent us to murder, they sent us to die—for their vanity. Are you going to defend them? No! They must be plucked out. Like weeds, they must be torn up by the roots! You must pull four at a time, as we had to do with Dill. Four of you together, then you'll get her up. Are you the doctor? There! Do it to my head! I don't want a wife! Pull—pull her out!"

He struck himself on the head with his fist. He was dragged into the house, howling at the top of his voice. Soon the garden was empty. By degrees the lights were extinguished and the noise was stilled, except for the distant artillery fire. The patrol which had helped to take the madman back into the hospital repassed, with the old corporal in the rear, hanging his head. From afar off came the flash of an explosion, followed by a prolonged rumbling. The old man stood still, listened, shook his fist, spat disgustedly, and muttered:

"Oh, Hell!"

I have given lengthy extracts from this story, for I wished to convey a notion of the author's pulsating, vibrant, and impassioned style. There is more of the drama here than of the novel, and an elemental fierceness like that of Shakespearean drama. It would be well if these pages, so profound in the bitterness of their injustice, were to become widely known. It would be well if the poor women who, in all love as a rule, adopt a superhuman pose, could be made to realise, by means of this madman's outpourings, the secret thoughts which no man will dare to tell them, to understand the mute and almost shamefaced appeal to their poor human kindliness, to their simple and motherly compassion.

I shall deal more briefly with the other episodes.

The second, "Baptism of Fire" (Feuertaufe), is long, perhaps too long, but full of pity and of pain. Almost the whole scene is played within the soul of Captain Marschner, a man of fifty, who is leading his company to the front-line trench under the enemy's fire. He is not a professional soldier. As a young man he had been an officer, but at the age of thirty he had gone to school again, wishing to quit the trade of war and to become a civil engineer. Now the war had brought him back to the army. He had been in Vienna only the day before yesterday. His men were fathers of families, stonemasons, peasants, factory hands, and so on. None of them had any patriotic enthusiasm. He read their minds, and felt ashamed of himself because he was leading to certain death these poor fellows who trusted him. Beside him marched Weixler, a young lieutenant, cold, ruthless, inhuman—as one so often is at twenty years of age "when one has had no time yet to learn the value of life." The hardness of this man (an irreproachable officer) arouses in Marschner mingled anger and suffering. By degrees a fierce but unspoken feud arises between them. At the very end, just when open war is about to break out between the two, a huge shell bursts in their trench and both are buried under the wreckage. The captain comes to himself with a shattered skull. At a few paces' distance lies the implacable lieutenant, his entrails trailing on the ground beside him. They exchange a last look. Marschner sees a face that is almost strange to him, pale and sad, with timid eyes. The whole expression is gentle and plaintive; there is an unforgettable air of tender, anxious resignation.

"He is suffering!" flashed through the captain's mind. "He is suffering!" Marschner is transported with joy. And therewith he dies.

"My Comrade" (Der Kamarad) is the diary of a soldier in hospital. This man has been driven mad by the terrible sights at the front, and above all by the vision of a wounded man in the death agony, a poor wretch whose face had been torn away by a grapnel. The sight was seared upon his brain. The image never left him by day or by night. It sat down beside him at meals; went to bed with him; got up with him in the morning. It had become "My Comrade." The description is positively hallucinating, and this story contains some of the most forceful passages in the book, directed against the warmongers and against the humbugs of the press.

"A Hero's Death" (Heldentod) describes the death in hospital of First Lieutenant Otto Kadar. He has a fractured skull. While the regimental officers were listening to a gramophone playing the Rakoczy march, a bomb exploded among them. The dying man never stops talking of the Rakoczy march. He imagines that he is looking at the corpse of a young officer whose head has been carried away, and in place of the head, screwed into the neck, is the gramophone disc. In his growing delirium, he fancies that the same thing has happened to all the common soldiers, to all the officers, to himself; that in each one the head has been replaced by a gramophone disc. That is why it is so easy to lead them to the slaughter. The dying man makes a frantic effort to tear away the disc from his own neck, and as he does so all is over. The old major looking on says in a voice vibrating with respect: "He died like a true Hungarian—singing the Rakoczy march."

"Home Again" (Heimkehr) tells of the homecoming of Johann Bogdan, who had been the handsomest man in his native village. He returns from the war hopelessly disfigured. In hospital his face has been remade for him by means of a number of plastic operations. But when he looks at himself in the glass he is horror-stricken. No one in the village recognises him. The only exception is a hunchback whom he had looked on with contempt, and who now greets him familiarly. The countryside has been transformed by the building of a munition factory. Marcsa, Bogdan's betrothed, works there, and has become the factory owner's mistress. Bogdan sees red, and stabs the man, to be struck down dead himself a moment later.—In this story the growth of the revolutionary spirit is manifest. Bogdan, a dull conservative by nature, is inspired with it against his will. We have a threatening vision of the return of the soldiers from all the armies, and of how they will take vengeance upon those who sent others to death while remaining at home to enjoy life and to grow rich by speculation.

I have kept the third story to the last, for it contrasts with the others by the sobriety of its emotion. It is entitled "The Victor" (Der Sieger). In the other episodes, the tragic element is nude and bleeding. Here tragedy is veiled with irony, and is all the more formidable. Revolt simmers beneath the calm words; the butchers are pilloried by the bitter satire.

The victor is His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief, the renowned Generalissimo X., universally known in the press as "The Victor of * * *." He is there in all his glory, in the principal square of the town which is now the military headquarters. Here he is absolute master. Here there is nothing which he cannot do or undo at his will. The band is playing, on a fine autumn afternoon. His Excellency sits out of doors in front of a café, amid smart officers and elegantly dressed ladies. It is nearly forty miles from the front. Strict orders have been given that no wounded or convalescent soldier, or any man whose appearance might have a depressing effect on the general war enthusiasm or might trouble the comfort of those who are at ease, shall be allowed out of hospital. We are told how much His Excellency is enjoying himself. He finds the war splendid. People have never had a jollier time. "Did you notice the young fellows back from the front? Sunburnt, healthy, happy! … I assure you the world has never been so healthy as it is now." The whole company chimes in to celebrate the beneficial effects of the war. His Excellency meditates upon his good luck, his titles, his decorations, harvested in a single year of war, after he had vegetated for nine-and-thirty years in peace and mediocrity. It has been a perfect miracle. He is now a national hero. He has his motor, his country mansion, his chef, delicate fare, a lordly retinue of servants—and he has not to pay a penny for it. Only one thing troubles his reflections, the thought that the whole fairy tale may vanish as suddenly as it came, and that he may relapse into obscurity. What if the enemy were to break through? But he reassures himself. All is going well. The great enemy offensive, which has been expected for the last three months, and which actually began twenty-four hours ago, hurls itself vainly against a wall of iron. "The human reservoir is full to overflowing. Two hundred thousand young stalwarts of exactly the right age are ready to be caught up in the whirl of the dance, until they sink in a marish of blood and bones." His Excellency's agreeable reverie is interrupted by an aide-de-camp, who informs him that the correspondent of an influential foreign newspaper has requested an interview. This scene is brilliantly described. The general does not allow the journalist to get a word in. He has his speech ready:

"He delivered it now, speaking with emphasis, and pausing occasionally to recall what came next. First of all, he referred to his gallant soldiers, lauding their courage, their contempt for death, their doings glorious beyond description. He went on to express regret that it was impossible to reward all these heroes according to their deserts. Raising his voice, he invoked the fatherland's eternal gratitude for such loyalty and self-renunciation even unto death. Pointing to the heavy crop of medals on his chest, he explained that the distinctions conferred on him were really a tribute to his men. Finally he interwove a few well-chosen remarks anent the military calibre of the enemy and the skilled generalship displayed by the other side. His last words conveyed his inviolable confidence in ultimate victory."

When the oration was finished, the general became the man of the world.

"You are going to the front now?" he asked with a courteous smile, and responded to the journalist's enthusiastic "yes" with a melancholy sigh.

"Lucky man! I envy you. You see, the tragedy in the life of the modern general is that he cannot lead his men personally into the fray. He spends his whole life making ready for war; he is a soldier in body and mind, and yet he knows the excitement of battle only from hearsay."

Of course the correspondent is delighted that he will be able to depict this all-powerful warrior in the sympathetic role of renunciation.

The agreeable scene is disturbed by the intrusion of an infantry captain who is out of his mind and has escaped from hospital. His Excellency, though in a towering rage, controls his temper for the sake of appearances, and has the inconvenient visitor sent back in his own car. He turns the incident to account by uttering a few touching phrases concerning the impossibility for a general to do his duty if he had to witness all the misery at the front. He evades the correspondent's final question, "When does Your Excellency hope for peace?" by pointing across the square to the old cathedral, saying, "The only advice I can give you is to go over there and ask our Heavenly Father. No one else can answer that question."—Then His Excellency descends upon the hospital like a whirlwind, blusters at the old staff-surgeon, and reiterates the order to keep all the patients safely under lock and key. His wrath by now is slightly assuaged, but it is revived by a message from the front. A brigadier-general reports terrible losses, and declares that he cannot hold the line without reinforcements. It was part of His Excellency's plan that this brigade should be wiped out, after resisting the attack as long as possible. But he is angry that his victims should have any advice to offer, and sends curt orders, "The sector is to be held."—At length, the day's work being over, the great man drives home in his motor, still fiercely excogitating the correspondent's idiotic question, "When does Your Excellency hope for peace?"

"Hope! … How tactless! … Hope for peace! What good has a general to expect from peace? Could not this civilian understand that a commander-in-chief is only a commander-in-chief in war-time, and that in peace-time he is nothing more than a professor with a collar of gold braid?"

The general is annoyed once more when the car pulls up because it is necessary to close the hood on account of the rain. But during the pause His Excellency hears the sound of distant firing. His eyes brighten.—Thank God, there was still war.

My quotations have been enough to show the emotional force and the trenchant irony of Latzko's book. It scorches. It is a torch of suffering and revolt. Both its merits and its defects are sib to this frenzy. The author is master of the writer's art, but he is not always master of his own feelings. His memories are still open wounds. He is possessed by his visions. His nerves vibrate like violin strings. Almost without exception, his analyses of emotion are tremulous monologues. His shattered spirit cannot find repose.

Doubtless he will be criticised for the preponderant place assumed in his book by physical pain. The work is full of it. Pain monopolises the reader's mind and wearies his eyes. Not until we have read Men in Battle do we fully appreciate Barbusse's chariness in the use of material effects. If Latzko is persistent in their employment, this is not merely because he is haunted by memories of pain. He wishes, deliberately wishes, to communicate these impressions to others, for he has suffered greatly from others' insensibility.

In very truth, such insensibility has been the saddest of all our experiences during this war. We knew man to be stupid, mediocre, selfish: we knew that on occasions man could be extremely cruel. But though we had few illusions, we had never believed that man could remain so monstrously indifferent to the cries of millions of victims. We had never believed that there could be a smile such as we have witnessed upon the lips of the young fanatics and of the old demoniacs who, from their safe seats, are never weary of looking on at the mutual slaughter of the nations, of those who kill one another for the pleasure, the pride, the ideas, and the interests of the onlookers. All the rest, all the crimes, we can tolerate; but this aridity of soul is the worst of all, and we feel that Latzko has been overwhelmed by it. Like one of his own characters, who is regarded as a sick man because he cannot forget the sufferings he has witnessed, Latzko cries to the apathetic public:

"Sick! … No! It is the others that are sick. They are sick who gloat over news of victories and see conquered miles of territory arise resplendent above mountains of corpses. They are sick who stretch a barrier of many-coloured bunting between themselves and their better feelings, lest they should see what crimes are being committed against their brothers in the beyond that they call 'the front.' Every man is sick who can still think, talk, argue, sleep, knowing that other men, holding their own entrails in their hands, are crawling like half-crushed worms across the furrows in the fields, and are dying like animals before they can reach the ambulance station, while somewhere, far away, a woman with longing in her heart is dreaming beside an empty bed. All those are sick who fail to hear the moaning, the gnashing of teeth, the howling, the crashing and bursting, the wailing and cursing and agonising in death, because their ears are filled with the murmur of everyday affairs. These blind and deaf ones are sick, not I. Sick are those dumb beings whose soul can give voice neither to compassion nor to anger.…" ("My Comrade").

The author's aim is to arouse these sick beings from their torpor, to treat them with the actual cautery of pain. This aim is portrayed in the person of Captain Marschner ("Baptism of Fire"), who, when his company is in the thick of the slaughter, suffers from nothing so intensely as from the harsh impassivity of his lieutenant, but who, himself at the point of death, finds it a positive solace to see on Weixler's stern face a shadow of pain, brotherly pain.

"Thank God," he thinks. "At last he knows what suffering is!"

"Through sympathy to knowledge," sings the mystical chorus of Parsifal.

This "suffering with others" (sympathy, Mitleid), this "pain which unites," overflows from the work of Andreas Latzko.

November 15, 1917.

" Les Tablettes," Geneva, December, 1917.

  1. Andreas Latzko, Menschen im Krieg, Rascher, Zurich, 1917; English translation, Men in Battle, Cassell, London, 1918.
  2. Andreas Latzko is a Hungarian officer. He was wounded on the Italian front during the fighting of 1915–16.