Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Your Christmas letter came last night. Perhaps in this very hour when I am writing to you, mine of the same day is reaching you. At that time, in spite of the risk, I was enjoying all the beauty, but to-day I confess it is poisoned for me by what we hear of the last slaughter.

On the 26th we were made to remain on duty, in positions occupied only at night as a rule. Our purely defensive position was lucky that day, for we were exposed only to slight artillery fire; but on our right a regiment of our division, in one of the terrible emplacements of October 14th, received an awful punishment, of which the inconclusive result cost several hundred lives. Here in our great village, where our kind hostess knew, as we did, the victims, all is sadness.

Same day.

. . . Nothing attacks the soul. The torture can certainly be very great, especially the apprehension, but questions coming from the distance can be silenced by acceptation of what is close. The weather is sweet and soft, and Nature is indifferent. The dead will not spoil the spring. . . .

And then, once the horror of the moment is over, when one sees its place taken by only the memory of those who have gone, there is a kind of sweetness in the thought of what really exists. In these solemn woods one realises the inanity of sepulchres and the pomp of funerals. The souls of the brave have no need of all that. . . .

4 o’clock.

I have just finished the fourth portrait, a lieutenant in my company. He is delighted. Daylight fades. I send you my thoughts, full of cheerfulness. Hope and wisdom.

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Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

9 o’clock (5th day in the first line).

It appears that the terrible position, courageously held by us on October 14th, and immediately lost by our successors, has been retaken, and 200 metres more, but at the price of a hundred casualties.

Dear mother, want of sleep robs me of all intelligence. True, one needs little of that for the general run of existence here, but I should have liked to speak to you. The only consolation is that our love needs no expression.

Very little to tell you. I was quite stupefied by the day’s work yesterday, spent entirely in darkness. From my place I had only a glimpse of a pretty tree against the sky.

To-day, in the charming early morning I saw a beautiful and extremely brilliant star. I had gone to fetch some coal and water, and on the way back, when daylight had already come, that extraordinary star still persisted. My corporal, who, like me, was dodging from bush to bush back to our house, said:

‘Do you know what that star is? It is the sign for the enemy’s patrol to rally.’

It was true, and at first I felt outraged at this profanation of the sky, and then (apart from the ingenuity of the thing) I told myself that this star meant, for those poor creatures on the other side, that they could take the direction of safety. I felt less angry about it then. The sign had given me so much joy as a star that I decided to stick to my first impression.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Christmas Morning.

What a unique night!—night without parallel, in which beauty has triumphed, in which mankind, notwithstanding their delirium of slaughter, have proved the reality of their conscience.

During the intermittent bombardments a song has never ceased to rise from the whole line.

Opposite to us a most beautiful tenor was declaiming the enemy’s Christmas. Much farther off, beyond the ridges, where our lines begin again, the Marseillaise replied. The marvellous night lavished on us her stars and meteors. Hymns, hymns, from end to end.

It was the eternal longing for harmony, the indomitable claim for order and beauty and concord.

As for me, I cherished old memories in meditating on the sweetness of the Childhood of Christ. The freshness, the dewy youthfulness of this French music, were very moving to me. I remembered the celebrated Sommeil des Pèlerins and the shepherds’ chorus. A phrase which is sung by the Virgin thrilled me: ‘Le Seigneur, pour mon fils, a béni cet asile.’ The melody rang in my ears while I was in that little house, with its neighbour in flames, and itself given over to a precarious fate.

I thought of all happinesses bestowed; I thought that you were perhaps at this moment calling down a blessing upon my abode. The sky was so lovely that it seemed to smile favourably upon all petition; but what I want strength to ask for perpetually is consistent wisdom—wisdom which, human though it may be, is none the less safe from anything that may assail it.

The sun is flooding the country and yet I write by candle-light; now and then I go out into the back gardens to see the sun. All is light, peace falling from on high upon the deserted country.

I come back to our room, where the brass of the pretty Meusian beds and the carved wood of the cupboards shine in the half-light. All these things have suffered through the rough use the soldiers put them to, but we have real comfort here. We have found table-implements and a dinner-service, and for two days running we made chocolate in a soup-tureen. Luxury!

O dear mother, if God allows me the joy of returning, what youth will this extraordinary time have brought back to me! As I wrote to my friend P——, I lead the life of a child in the midst of people so simple that even my rudimentary existence is complicated in comparison with my surroundings.

Mother dear, the length of this war tries our power of passive will, but I feel that everything is coming out as I was able to foresee. I think that these long spells of inactivity will give repose to the intellectual machine. If I ever have the happiness of once more making use of mine, it is sure to take a little time to get moving again, but with what new vigour! My last work was one of pure thought, and my ambition, which all things justify, is to give a more plastic form to my thought as it develops.

Mina “Jerry” McDonald

Schloss K, Austro-Hungarian Empire

Schloss K, Austro-Hungarian Empire

The typhus patient caused us all much thought, for he was dreadfully ill, and once the delirium had passed and the fever abated, became irritable and very trying to nurse. The doctor was confident of a good recovery, and on the day before Christmas said that in a very short time we might give some solid food to the soldier, who then and there asked if he might have at once a certain Hungarian soup of which he was very fond, but which he had always been too poor to get. The doctor was almost lurid in forbidding the soup; and, noticing that the sick man continued uneasy and expectant, I asked if there was anything else he wanted particularly, and got the reply that his wife had sent him some time ago a parcel containing some good things to eat, and it didn’t seem to arrive. Claire, finding on inquiry at the post- office that no parcel had come for him, made up one of cake, fruit, etc., and pretending that it was the one he expected, I told him that though he might
not yet eat those things they would be put away for him till he was better; but with satisfaction and pride he insisted that they should be immediately divided among the other soldiers who could eat them.

In the afternoon the decoration of the Christmas tree and the preparations for the children’s treat, to be held on the next day, were proceeding amid great merriment, when a footman appeared to say that the Italian soldier had come to fetch Fraulein Sherry, for the sick soldier was dying. Unfortunately the Italian had not exaggerated, for heart failure had set in; the priest was immediately fetched, and just as the prayers were finished the soldier died. The Princess’s first thought was one of regret that in spite of doctor’s orders I had not allowed him to have the soup he liked so much, but had always been too poor to get.

“He would have died anyhow, and it was the only chance he ever had in his life of getting that soup ! ”

His wife, who had been telegraphed to in the early stages of the man’s illness, but had probably not wanted to spend the money on the long journey from the borders of Transylvania, eventually arrived full of grief for her young husband. Though he had a wife and two children the soldier had been only twenty-one years of age, for in Hungary the peasant marries young a wife and children meaning money to him,
in saving paid labour on his fields. Our Christmas was turned into gloom and all festivities were put off till New Year the school children and their relatives being but little disappointed, for a funeral, which in Hungary is regarded as being of a festive nature, offered adequate compensation for the postponement of the treat.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

 morning.

Our first day in the outpost passed away in the calm of a country awaiting snow. It came in the night.

In the back gardens, which lie in sight of the Germans, I went out to see it, where it emphasised and ennobled the least of things. Then I came back to my candle, and I write on a table where my neighbour is grating chocolate. So that is war.

Military life has some amusing surprises. We had to come to the first line before two non-commissioned officers found a bath and could bathe themselves. As for me, I have made myself a water-jug out of a part of a 75.

. . . I will not speak of patience, since a reserve of mere patience may be useless preparation for the unknown quantity. But I must say that the time goes extremely quickly.

We spend child-like days; indeed we are children in regard to these events, and the benefit of this war will have been to restore youth to the hearts of those who return.

Dear mother, our village has just had a visit from two shells. Will they be followed by others? May God help us! The other day they sent us a hundred and fifteen, to wound one man in the wrist!

A house in which a section of our company is living is in flames. We have not seen a soul stirring. We can only hope that it is well with them.

I am deeply happy to have lived through these few months. They have taught me what one can make of one’s life, in any circumstances.

My fellow-soldiers are splendid examples of the French spirit. . . . They swagger, but their swagger is only the outer form of a deep and magnificent courage.

My great fault as an artist is that I am always wanting to clothe the soul of the race in some beautiful garment painted in my own colours. And when people irritate me it is that they are soiling these beautiful robes; but, as a matter of fact, they would find them a bad encumbrance in the way of their plain duty.

 

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(in the dark).

I had begun this letter yesterday, when I was forced to leave off. It was then splendid weather, which has lasted fairly well. But we are now back again in our first lines. This time we are occupying the village itself, our pretty Corot village of two months ago. But our outpost is situated in a house where we are obliged to show no sign of life, so as to conceal our presence from the enemy. And so here we are at nine o’clock in the morning, in a darkness that would make it seem to be late on Christmas eve.

Your dear letter lately received has given me great joy. It is true that Grace and Inspiration are two names for the same thing.

If you are going to see the pictures of the great poet Gustave Moreau, you will see a panel called La vie de l’humanité (I believe). It consists of nine sections in three divisions, called l’Age d’or, l’Age d’argent, l’Age de fer. Above is a pediment from which Christ presides over this human panorama. But this is where this great genius has the same intuition as you had: each of the three parts bears the name of a hero—Adam, Orpheus, and Cain, and each one represents three periods. Now, the periods of the golden age are called Ecstasy, Prayer, and Sleep, while the periods of the silver age are called Inspiration, Song, and Tears.

Ecstasy is the same as Grace, because the picture shows Adam and Eve in the purity of their souls, in a scene of flowers, and in the enjoyment of divine contemplation. The harmony of Nature itself urges them on in their impulse towards God.

In the silver age, Inspiration is still Grace, but just beginning to be complicated by human artifice. The poet Orpheus perpetually contemplates God, but the Muse is always at his elbow, the symbol of human art is already born; and that great human manifestation of God, Song, brings with it grief and tears.

Following out the cycle and coming to human evil, Gustave Moreau shows the iron age—Cain condemned to labour and sorrow.

This work shows that the divine moment may be seized, but is fugitive and can never remain with man. It explains our failures. People say that the picture is too literary, but it touches the heart of those who wish to break through the ice with which all human expression is chilled.

Undoubtedly Rembrandt was the Poet of genius par excellence, at the same time as he was pure Painter. But let us grant that ours is a less rich time, our temperaments less universal; and let us recognise the beauty of Gustave Moreau’s poem, of which, in two words, you expressed the spirit.

Your Son.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

morning.

My very dear Mother,—I have told you freely in my letters of my happiness; but the rock ahead of happiness is that poor humanity is in perpetual fear of losing it. In spite of all experience, we do not realise that in the eternal scheme of things a new happiness always grows at the side of an old one.

For myself, I have not to look for a new one. I have only to try to reconcile two wisdoms. One, which is human, prompts me to cultivate my happiness, but the other teaches me that human happiness is a most perishable flower.

We may say: Let us make use of the joys chosen by an upright conscience; but let us never forget how swiftly these pass.

Yes, the Holy Scriptures contain the finest and most poetical philosophy. I think they owe it to their affiliation to the oldest philosophies. There are many disputable things in Edouard Schuré, but what remains is the divination which made him climb through all doctrine to the infinitely distant Source of human wisdom.

Do you know that those touching traditions of the Good Shepherd and the Divine Mother, so happily employed in our Christian religions, are the creations of the oldest symbolism? The Greeks derived them from their own spiritual ancestors; with them the good shepherd was called Hermes, the god of the migration of souls. In the same way, the type of our Madonna is the great Demeter, the mother who bears an infant in her arms.

One feels that all religions, as they succeeded each other, transmitted the same body of symbols, renewed each time by humanity’s perpetually-young spirit of poetry.