Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

morning.

I have had your dear letter of the 9th, in which you speak of our home. It makes me happy to feel how fine and strong is the force of life which soon adjusts itself to each separation and uprooting. It makes me happy, too, to think that my letters find an echo in your heart. Sometimes I was afraid of boring you, because though our life is so fine in many ways, it is certainly very primitive, and there are not many salient things to relate.

If only I could follow my calling of painter I could have recourse to these wonderful visions that lie before me, and I could find vent for all the pent-up artist’s emotion that is within me. As it is, in trying to speak of the sky, the tree, the hill, or the horizon, I cannot use words as subtle as they, and the infinite variety of these things can only be named in the same general terms, which I am afraid of constantly repeating. . . .

(later)

One must adapt oneself to this special kind of life, which is indigent as far as intellectual activity goes, but marvellously rich in emotion. I suppose that in troubled times for many centuries there have been men who, weary of luxury, have sought in the peace of the cloister the contemplation of eternal things; contemplation threatened by the crowd, but a refuge even so. And so I think our life is like that of the monks of old, who were military too, and more apt at fighting than I could ever be. Among them, those who willed could know the joy which I now find.

To-day I have a touching letter from Madame M——, whose spirit I love and admire.

Changeable but very beautiful weather.

It is impossible to say more than we have already said about the attitude we must adopt in regard to events. The important thing is to put this attitude in practice. It is not easy, as I have learnt in these last days, though no new difficulty had arisen to impede my path towards wisdom.

. . . Tormenting anxiety can sometimes be mistaken for an alert conscience.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

 (splendid weather, with all the calm returned).

We are still here in the region of the first line, but in a place where we can lift our heads and behold the charm of my Meusian hills, clearing in the delicate weather.

Above the village and the orchards I see the lines of birches and firs. Some have their skeletons coloured with a diaphanous violet marked with white. Others build up the horizon with stronger lines.

I have been strengthened by the splendid lesson given me by a beautiful tree during a march. Ah, dear mother, we may all disappear and Nature will remain, and the gift I had from her of a moment of herself is enough to justify a whole existence. That tree was like a soldier.

You would not believe how much harm has been done to the forests about here: it is not so much the machine-guns as the frightful amount of cutting necessary for making our shelters and for our fuel. Ah well, in the midst of this devastation something told me that there will always be beauty, in man and in tree.

For man also gives this lesson, though in him it is less easily distinguished: it is a fine thing to see the splendid vitality of all this youth, whose force no harvest can diminish.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

. . . After a refreshing night I walked to-day in these woods where for three months the dead have strewn the ground. To-day the vanishing autumn displayed its richness, and the same beauty of mossy trunks spoke to me, as it did yesterday, of eternal joy.

I am sure it needs an enormous effort to feel all this, but it must be felt if we are to understand how little the general harmony is disturbed by that which intolerably assails our emotions.

We must feel that all human uprooting is only a little thing, and what is truly ourselves is the life of the soul.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

10 o’clock (card).

A soft day under the rain. All goes well in our melancholy woods. In various parts of the neighbourhood there has been a terrible cannonade.

Received your letters of the 4th and 6th. They brought me happiness: they are the true joy of life. I am glad you visited C——. I hope to write to you at greater length. It is not that I have less leisure than usual, but I am going through a time when I am less sensible to the beauty of things. I long for true wisdom. . . .

7 o’clock.

To-day, in spite of the changing beauty of sun and rain, I did not feel alive to Nature. Yet never was there such grace and goodness in the skies.

The landscape, with the little bridge and the man on horseback of which I have told you, softened under the splendour of the clouds. But I had lapsed from my former sense of the benediction of God, when suddenly the beauty, all the beauty, of a certain tree spoke to my inmost heart. It told me of fairness that never fails; of the greenness of ivy and the redness of autumn, the rigidity of winter in the branches;—and then I understood that an instant of such contemplation is the whole of life, the very reward of existence, beside which all human expectation is nothing but a bad dream.

 

Mina “Jerry” McDonald

Schloss K, Austro-Hungarian Empire

Schloss K, Austro-Hungarian Empire

Please note date is approximate

In the beginning of December a Light Blue Hussar, who had been invalided home, came on a short visit to Schloss K . He had been in Galicia, where he was laid up with dysentery ” The second worst case in the hospital, too,” he said with pride and he was glad to escape with dysentery which was one of the minor diseases in Galicia where cholera, spotted typhus, and small-pox were raging. The campaign in this waste and infected land was almost too horrible for description not only did the nature of the country, the climate, and the difficulties of transport make fighting there a hopeless task, but the morale of the Austrian troops was bad, and Galicia was simply a nest of treachery : there wasn’t a man, he said, from end to end of Galicia but had his price. It was better now, for there was practically no civilian population left, but in the beginning they had been quite unable to cope with the treachery. Almost the very first traitor to be shot was one of their own colonels an Austrian, who was not a Slav, and who had never been suspected of any anti-Austrian leanings. It had been his unpleasant duty on several occasions to preside over the execution of the Slav priests who had been convicted of treason ; “And I give you my word, it was almost more than I could get through. They thought far less of it than I did, and were much calmer. It’s one thing to kill Russians in a bayonet charge, but to string up those miserable priests in cold blood was no job for me,” and the Hussar grew pale at the recollections of the dawn of those hideous August mornings in Galicia. He was full of admiration for the Russian, whom he described as “the best-natured fellow in the world,” and a very clean fighter. He could get his Hungarians to face anything except the Don Cossacks, whose very name demoralised the enemy. “And that is not saying little,” he said, “for in the whole world I don’t believe you’ll find fighters like the Hungarians, unless, perhaps, the Scottish Englishmen in the little skirts.”

He was, nevertheless, very full of hope and enthusiasm, and was confident, not in the power of Austria, but of Germany to win ; and he spoke of the efficiency and organisation of the Germans with whom he had come in contact very often, as something that passed his comprehension, frankly confessing that till German officers would be distributed over the whole Austrian line nothing could ever be effected against the Russians in Galicia, ” for it isn’t in us to be good officers but we remain human beings, while those Germans are nothing but machines pfui! ”

The Light Blue Hussar would not go across to the hospital at all. He approved of it in the distance, but “What do you want me to go there for?” he said. “Do you imagine it’s a treat for the soldiers to see an officer? No, poor devils, they see more of us than they like, and we see a lot more of them than we like, so, for goodness’ sake, give us each a rest from the other.”

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(a marvellous morning).

Our third day in billets brings us the sweetness of friendly weather. The inveterate deluge of our time in the first line relents a little, and the sun shows itself timidly.

Our situation, which has been pleasant enough during the last two months, may now be expected entirely to change.

The impregnability of the positions threatens to make the war interminable; one of the two adversaries must use his offensive to unlock the situation and precipitate events. I think the high command faces this probability—and I hardly dare tell you that I cannot regret anything that increases the danger.

Our life, of which a third part is flatly bourgeois and the two other parts present just about the same dangers as, say, chemical works do, will end by deadening all sensibility. It is true we shall be grieved to leave what we are used to, but perhaps we were getting too accustomed to a state of well-being which could not last.

My own circumstances are perhaps going to change. I shall probably lose my course, being mentioned for promotion to the rank of corporal, which means being constantly in the trenches and various duties in the first line. I hope God will continue to bless me.

. . . I feel that we have nothing to ask. If there should be in us something eternal which we must still manifest on earth, we may be sure that God will let us do it.

(2nd letter).

Happily you and I live in a domain where everything unites us without our having to write our thoughts. . . .

The weather is overcast again and promises us a wet time in the first and second lines.

The day declines, and a great melancholy falls too upon everything. This is the hour of sadness for those who are far away, for all the soldiers whose hearts are with their homes, and who see night closing down upon the earth.

I come to you, and immediately my heart grows warm. I can feel your attentive tenderness, and the wisdom which inspires your courage. Sometimes I am afraid of always saying the same thing, but how can I find new words for my poor love, tossed always through the same vicissitudes? Now that we are going to set out, perhaps we shall have to leave behind many cherished keepsakes, but the soul should not be strongly tied to fetiches. We are fond of clinging to many things, but love can do without them.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Dear Mother,—P—— L——, in his charming letter, tells me he would willingly exchange his philosophers for a gun. He is quite wrong. For one thing, Spinoza is a most valuable aid in the trenches; and then it is those who are still in a position to profit by culture and progress who must now carry on French thought. They have an overwhelmingly difficult task, calling for far more initiative than ours. We are free of all burden. I think our existence is like that of the early monks: hard, regular discipline and freedom from all external obligations.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

My beloved Mother,—I am writing this in the night . . . by six o’clock in the morning military life will be in full swing.

My candle is stuck on a bayonet, and every now and then a drop of water falls on to my nose. My poor companions try to light a reluctant fire. Our time in the trenches transforms us into lumps of mud.

The general good humour is admirable. However the men may long to return, they accept none the less heroically the vicissitudes of the situation. Their courage, infinitely less ‘literary’ than mine, is so much the more practical and adaptable; but each bird has its cry, and mine has never been a war-cry. I am happy to have felt myself responsive to all these blows, and my hope lies in the thought that they will have forged my soul. Also I place confidence in God and whatever He holds in store for me.

I seem to foresee my work in the future. Not that I build much on this presentiment, for all artists have conceived work which has never come to light. Mozart was about to make a new start when he died, and Beethoven planned the ‘Tenth Symphony’ in ignorance of the all too brief time that was to be allowed him by destiny.

It is the duty of the artist to open his flowers without dread of frost, and perhaps God will allow my efforts to fulfil themselves in the future. My very various attempts at work all have an indescribable immaturity about them still, a halting execution, which consorts badly with the real loftiness of the intention. It seems to me that my art will not quite expand until my life is further advanced. Let us pray that God will allow me to attain. . . .

As for what is in your own heart, I have such confidence in your courage that this certainty is my great comfort in this hour. I know that my mother has gained that freedom of soul which allows contemplation of the universal scheme of things. I know from my own experience how intermittent is this wisdom, but even to taste of it is already to possess God. It is the security I derive from knowledge of your soul and your love, that enables me to think of the future in whatever form it may come.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

I am happy to see you so determinedly courageous. We have need of courage, or, rather, we have need of something difficult to obtain, which is neither patience nor overconfidence, but a certain belief in the order of things, the power to be able to say of every trial that it is well.

Our instinct for life makes us try to free ourselves from our obligations when they are too cruel, too oft-repeated, but, as I am happy to know, you have been able to see what Spinoza understood by human liberty. Inaccessible ideal, to which one must cling nevertheless. . . .

. . . Dear mother, these trials that we must accept are long, but notwithstanding their unchanging form one cannot call them monotonous, since they call upon courage which must be perpetually new. Let us unite together for God to grant us strength and resource in accepting everything. . . .

You know what I call religion: that which unites in man all his ideas of the universal and the eternal, those two forms of God. Religion, in the ordinary sense of the word, is but the binding together of certain moral and disciplinary formulas with the fine poetic imagery of the great biblical and Christian philosophies.

Do not let us offend any one. Looked at properly, religious formulas, however apart they may remain from my own habit of mind, seem to me praiseworthy and sympathetic in all that they contain of aspiration and beauty and form.

Dear mother whom I love, let us always hope: trials are legion, but beauty remains. Let us pray that we may long continue to contemplate it. . . .

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

in the morning.

. . . We have come out of our burrows, and three days of imprisonment are followed by a morning in the open. It would be impossible to imagine such a state of mud.

Your pretty aluminium watch is the admiration of everybody.

Is André’s wound serious? The mothers endure terrible agony in this war, but courage—nothing will be lost. As for me, I get on all right, and am as happy as one may be.

A terrific wind to-day, chasing the fine clouds. Keen air, in which the branches thrive. Beautiful moonlight on all these nights, all the more appreciated if one has been cheated of the day.

Dear, I am writing badly to-day because we are bewildered by the full daylight after those long hours of darkness, but my heart goes out to you and rests with you.

. . . Let us bring to everything the spirit of courage. Let us have confidence in God always, whatever happens. How much I feel, as you do, that one can adore Him only with one’s spirit! And like you I think that we must avoid all pride which condemns the ways of other people. Let our love lead us in union towards the universal Providence. Let us, in constant prayer, give back our destiny into His hands. Let us humbly admit to Him our human hopes, trying at every moment to link them to eternal wisdom. It is a task which now seems full of difficulty, but difficulty is in everything in life.