Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

This morning, daylight showed us a country covered with hoar-frost, a universal whiteness over hills and forest. My little village looks thoroughly chilled.

I had spent the greater part of the night in a warm shelter, and I could have stayed there, thanks to the kindness of my superiors, but I am foolish and timid, and I rejoined my comrades from 1 o’clock till half-past 4.

Curiously enough, we can easily bear the cold: an admirable article of clothing, which nearly all of us possess, is a flour-sack which can be worn, according to the occasion, as a little shoulder-cape, or as a bag for the feet. In either case it is an excellent preserver of heat.

11 o’clock.

For the moment there runs in my mind a pretty and touching air by Handel. Also, an allegro from our organ duets: joyful and brilliant music, overflowing with life. Dear Handel! Often he consoles me.

Beethoven comes back only rarely to my mind, but when his music does awake in me, it touches something so vital that it is always as though a hand were drawing aside a curtain from the mystery of the Creation.

Poor dear Great Masters! Shall it be counted a crime against them that they were Germans? How is it possible to think of Schumann as a barbarian?

Yesterday this country recalled to my mind what you played to me ten years ago, the Rheingold: ‘Libre étendu sur la hauteur.’ But the outlook of our French art had this superiority over the beautiful music of that wretched man—it had composure and clarity and reason. Yes, our French art was never turbid.

As for Wagner, however beautiful his music, and however irresistible and attractive his genius, I believe it would be a less substantial loss to French taste to be deprived of him than of his great classical compatriots.

I can say with truth that in those moments when the idea of a possible return comes to me, it is never the thought of the comfort or the well-being that preoccupies me. It is something higher and nobler which turns my thoughts towards this form of hope. Can I say that it is even something different from the immense joy of our meeting again? It is rather the hope of taking up again our common effort, our association, of which the aim is the development of our souls, and the best use we can make of them upon earth.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

in the morning.

Dear Mother,— . . . I write to you in the happiness of the dawn over my dear village. The night, which began with rain, has brought us again a pure and glorious sky. I see once more my distant horizons, my peaked hills, the harmonious lines of my valleys. From this height where I stand who would guess that agricultural and peaceful village to be in reality nothing but a heap of ruins, in which not a house is spared, and in which no human being can survive the hell of artillery!

As I write, the sun falls upon the belfry which I see framed in the still sombre tree close beside me, while far away, beneath the last hills, the last swelling of the ground, the plain begins to reveal its precious detail in the rosy and golden atmosphere.

11 o’clock.

The splendid weather is my great consolation. I live rather like an invalid sent to some magnificent country, whom the treatment compels to unpleasant and fatiguing occupations. Between Leysin and the trench where I am at present there has been only uncertainty. Nothing new has happened to our company since October 13.

This is a strange kind of war. It is like that between neighbours on bad terms. Consider that some of the trenches are separated from the enemy by hardly 100 metres, and that the combatants fling projectiles across with their hands: you see that these neighbours make use of violent methods.

As for me, I really live only when I am with you, and when I feel the splendour of the surroundings.

Even in the middle of conversations, I am able to preserve the sensation of solitude of thought which is necessary to me.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

To Madame C——.

My dear Friend,—How much pleasure and comfort your letter gives me, and how your warm friendship sustains my courage!

What you say to me about my mother binds me closer to existence. Thank you for your splendid and constant affection.

. . . What shall I tell you of my life? Through the weariness and the vicissitudes I am upheld by the contemplation of Nature which for two months has been accumulating the emotion and the pathos of this impassioned season. One of my habitual stations is on the heights which overlook the immense Woëvre plain. How beautiful it is! and what a blessing to follow, each hour of the day and evening, the kindling colours of the autumn leaves! This frightful human uproar cannot succeed in troubling the majestic serenity of Nature! There are moments when man seems to go beyond anything that could be imagined; but a soul that is prepared can soon perceive the harmony which over looks and reconciles all this dissonance. Do not think that I remain insensible to the agony of scenes that we behold all too often: villages wiped out by the artillery that is hurled upon them; smoke by day, light by night; the misery of a flying population under shell-fire. Each instant brings some shock straight to one’s heart. That is why I take refuge in this high consolation, because without some discipline of the heart I could not suffer thus and not be undone.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

7 o’clock.

Yesterday the wild weather, fine to see from the shelter of our billet, brought me apprehensions for to-night’s departure, but when I woke the sky was the purest and starriest that one could dream of! How grateful I felt!

What we fear most is the rain, which penetrates through everything when we are without fire or shelter. The cold is nothing—we are armed against it beforehand.

. . . In spite of all, how much I appreciated the sight of this vast plain upon which we descended, lashed by the great wind. Above the low horizon was the wide grey sky in which, here and there, pale rents recalled the vanished blue.—A black, tragic Calvary in silhouette—then some skeleton trees! What a place! This is where I can think of you, and of my beloved music. To-day I have the atmosphere that I want.

. . . I should like to define the form of my conviction of better things in the near future, resulting from this war. These events prepare the way to a new life: that of the United States of Europe.

After the conflict, those who will have completely and filially fulfilled their obligation to their country will find themselves confronted by duties yet more grave, and the realisation of things that are now impossible. Then will be the time for them to throw their efforts into the future. They must use their energies to wipe out the trace of the shattering contact of nations. The French Revolution, notwithstanding its mistakes, notwithstanding some backsliding in practice, some failure in construction, did none the less establish in man’s soul this fine theory of national unity. Well! the horrors of the 1914 war lead to the unity of Europe, to the unity of the race. This new state will not be established without blows and spoliation and strife for an indefinite time, but without doubt the door is now open towards the new horizon.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Since half-past eight on the evening of the 12th we have been dragged about from place to place in the prospect of our taking part in a violent movement. We left at night, and in the calm of nature my thoughts cleared themselves a little, after the two days in billets during which one becomes a little too material. Our reinforcement went up by stealth. We awaited our orders in a barn, where we slept on the floor. Then we filed into the woods and fields, which the day, breaking through grey, red, and purple clouds, slowly lit up, in surroundings the most romantic and pathetic that could be imagined. In the full daylight of a charming morning we learnt that the troops ahead of us had inflicted enormous losses on the enemy, and had even made a very slight advance. We then returned to our usual posts, and here I am again, beholding once more the splendour of the French country, so touching in this grey, windy, and impassioned November, with sunshine thrown in patches upon infinite horizons.

Dear mother, how beautiful it is, this region of spacious dignity, where all is noble and proportioned, where outlines are so beautifully defined!—the road bordered with trees diminishing towards the frontier, hills, and beyond them misty heights which one guesses to be the German Vosges. There is the scenery, and here is something better than the scenery. There is a Beethoven melody and a piece by Liszt called ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.’ Certainly we have no solitude, but if you turn the pages of Albert Samain’s poems you will find an aphorism by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam: ‘Know that there will always be solitude on earth for those who are worthy of it.’ This solitude of a soul that can ignore all that is not in tune with it. . . .

I have had two letters from you, of the 6th and 7th. Perhaps this evening I shall have another. Do not let us allow our courage to be concerned only with the waiting for letters from each other. But the letters are our life, they are what bring us our joys, our happiness, it is through them that we take delight in the sights of this world and of this time.

If your eyes are not strong, that is a reason for not writing, but apart from your health do not by depriving me of letters hold back your heart from me.

(2nd letter).

Dear Mother whom I love,—Here we are again in our usual billet, and my heart is full of thoughts all tending towards you. I cannot tell you all that I feel in every moment, yet how much I should like to share with you the many pleasures that come one by one even in this monotonous life of ours, as a broken thread drops its pearls.

I should like to be able to admire with you this lovely cloud, this stretch of country which so fills us with reverence, to listen with you to the poetry of the wind from beyond the mountain, as when we walked together at Boulogne. But here a great many prosaic occupations prevent me from speaking to you as I feel.

I sent you with my baggage my note-book from August 18 to October 20. These notes were made when we could easily get at our light bags, in the calm of our trench-days, when our danger stopped our chattering, and I could let my heart speak. I found a happiness more intense, wider and fuller, to write to you about. That was a time of paradise for me. But I don’t like the billets, because the comfort and the security, relaxing our minds, bring about a great deal of uproar which I don’t like. You know how much I have always needed quiet and solitude. Still, I have excellent friends, and the officers are very kind.

But with a little patience and a few thoughts about you I can be happy. How kind this first half of November has been! I have not suffered once from cold. And how lovely it was! That All Saints’ Day was nothing but a long hymn—from the night, with its pure moonlight on the dark amber of the autumn trees, to the tender twilight. The immense rosy dream of this misty plain, stretching out towards the near hills. . . . What a song of praise! and many days since then have sung the glory of God. Cœli ennarrant. . . .

That is what those days brought to me.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

3 o’clock.

. . . To-day we have had a march as pleasant as the first one, in weather of great beauty. We saw, in the blue and rosy distance, the far-off peak of the Metz hills, and the immense panorama scattered over with villages, some of which gathered up the morning light, while others were merely suggested.

This is the broad outline of our existence: for three days we stay close to the enemy, living in well-constructed shelters which are improved each time; then we spend three days a little way back; and then three days in billets in a neighbouring village, generally the same. We even gradually form habits—very passing ones, but still, we have a certain amount of contact with the civil population which has been so sorely tried. The woollen things are very effectual and precious.

. . . We have good people to deal with. The dear woman from whose dwelling I write to you, and with whom I stayed before, wears herself to death to give us a little of what reminds us of home.

But, dear mother, what reminds me of home is here in my heart. It is not eating on plates or sitting on a chair that counts. It is your love, which I feel so near. . . .

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

11 o’clock.

My very dear Mother,—What shall I say to you to-day—a day monotonous with fog. Occupations that are stupefying, not in themselves, but because of the insipid companionship. I fall back on myself. Yesterday I wrote you a long letter, telling you among other things how dear your letters are to me. When I began to write on this sheet I was a little weary and troubled, but now that I am with you I become happy, and I immediately remember whatever good fortune this day has brought me.

This morning the lieutenant sent me to get some wire from headquarters, in a devastated village which we have surrounded for six weeks. I went down through the orchards full of the last fallen plums. A few careless soldiers were gathering them up into baskets. A charming scene, purely pastoral and bucolic, in spite of the red trousers—very faded after three months’ campaign. . . .

I am happy in the affection of Ch—— R——. His is a nature according in all its elements with my own. I am sure that he will not be cross with me for not writing, especially if you give a kind message from me to his wife.

The little task confided to me meant walking from nightfall until nine o’clock, but I occasionally lay down in a shelter or in a barn instead of getting back to the trenches for the night.

I do not have good nights of reading now, but sometimes when S—— and I are lying side by side in the trench, you would not believe what a mirage we evoke and what joy we have in stirred-up memories. Ah, how science and intellectual phenomena lead us into a very heaven of legends, and what pleasure I get from the marvellous history of this metal, or that acid! For me the thousand and one nights are renewing themselves. And then at waking, sometimes, the blessing of a dawn. That is the life I have led since the 13th or 14th of October. I ask for nothing, I am content that in such a war we should have relatively a great deal of calm.

You cannot imagine what a consolation it is to know that you give your heart to what concerns me. What pleasure I have in imagining you interested in my books, looking at my engravings!. . .

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

. . . We have returned to the wide open view that I love so much. Unfortunately we can only catch a glimpse of it through mouse-holes. Well, it is always so!. . .

. . . All these days I have been feeling the charm of a country lying in autumn sweetness. This peace was troubled yesterday by the poignant sight of a burning village. It is not the first we have seen, and yet we have not grown used to it.

We had taken up our observation-posts; it was still dark. From our height we saw the tremendous flare and, at daybreak, the charming village, sheltering in the valley, was nothing but smoke. This, in the silvery nimbus of a glorious morning.

From our mouse-trap we had looked to the distance with its prettily winding road, its willow-bordered stream, its Calvary: all this harmony to end in the horror of destruction.

The Germans had set fire to it by hand in the night; they had been dislodged from it after two nights of fierce fighting: their action may be interpreted as an intention to retreat at this point. This proceeding, generally detested by our soldiers, is, I think, forced by strategic necessity. When a village is destroyed it is very difficult for us in the rear to make any kind of use of it. All day [Pg 69]we have been witnessing this devastation, while above our heads the little field-mice are taking advantage of the straw in which we are to sleep.

Our existence, as infantry, is a little like that of rabbits in the shooting season. The more knowing of us, at any rate, are perpetually on the look-out for a hole. As soon as we are buried in it, we are ordered not to move again. These wise orders are unfortunately not always given with discrimination; thus, yesterday there were four of us in an advance-trench situated in a magnificent spot and perfectly hidden beneath leaves. We should have been able to delight in the landscape but for the good corporal, who was afraid to allow us even a little enjoyment of life. Later the artillery came up with a tremendous din and showed us the use of these superlative precautions.

None the less, I have been able to enjoy the landscape—alas! a scene of smoke and tragedy yesterday. Be sure, beloved mother, that I do not wish to commit a single imprudence, but certainly this war is the triumph of Fate, of Providence and Destiny.

I pray ardently to deserve the grace of return, but apart from a few moments of only human impatience, I can say that the greater part of my being is given up to resignation.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

I have just had your card of the 30th announcing the sending-off of a packet. How kind this is! how much thought is given to us! All this sweetness is appreciated to the full.

Yesterday, a delicious November day. This morning, too much fog for the enjoyment of nature. But yesterday afternoon!

Delicate, refined weather, in which everything is etched as it were on a misty mirror. The bare shrubs, near our post, have been visited by a flock of green birds, with white-bordered wings; the cocks have black heads with a white spot. How can I tell you what it was to hear the solitary sound of their flight in this stillness!—That is one good thing about war: there can be only a certain amount of evil in the world; now, all of this being used by man against man, beasts at any rate are so much the better off—at least the beasts of the wood, our customary victims.

If you could only see the confidence of the little forest animals, such as the field-mice! The other day, from our leafy shelter I watched the movements of these little beasts. They were as pretty as a Japanese print, with the inside of their ears rosy like a shell. And then another time we watched the migration of the cranes: it is a moving thing to hear them cry in the dusk.

. . . What a happiness to see that you are drawing. Yes, do this for us both. If you knew how I itch to express in paint all our emotions! If you have read my letters of all this time you will know my privation, but also my happiness.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Yesterday, without knowing why, I was a little sad: what soldiers call avoir le cafard. My sadness arose from my having parted the day before with a book of notes which I had decided to send to you in a package. The events of the day before yesterday, albeit pacific, had so hustled me that I was not able to attend to this unfortunate parcel as I should have liked. Also, I was divided between two anxieties: the first, lest the package should not reach you, and lest these notes, which have been my life from the 1st to the 20th of October, should be lost. The second, on the contrary, was lest it should reach you before the arrival of explaining letters, which might seem strange to you, the sending-off having probably been done in another name, and the cover of my copybook bearing my directions that the notes should be forwarded to you if necessary.

. . . To-day we are living in the most intimate and delicate Corot landscape.

From the barn where we have established our outpost, I see, first, the road with puddles left by the rain; then some tree-stumps; then, beyond a meadow, a line of willows beside a charming running stream. In the background, a few houses are veiled in a light mist, keeping the delicate darks which our dear landscape-painter felt so nobly.

Such is the peace of this morning. Who would believe that one has but to turn one’s head, and there is nothing but conflagration and ruin!. . .