Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(in a billet).

Dear beloved Mother, and dear beloved Grandmother,—I am writing to you, having just struggled out of a most appalling nightmare, and out of Dantesque scenes that I have lived through. Things that Gustave Doré had the courage to picture through the text of the Divina Commedia have come to pass, with all the variety and circumstance of fact. In the midst of labours that happily tend to deaden one’s feelings, I have been able to gather the better fruits of pain.

On the 24th, in the evening, we returned to our positions, from which the more hideous of the traces of battle had been partly removed. Only a few places were still scattered with fragments of men that were taking on the semblance of that clay to which they were returning. The weather was fine and cold, and the heights we had gained brought us into the very sky. The immensities appeared only as lights: the higher light, a brilliance of stars; the lower light, a glow of fires. The frightful bombardment with which the Germans overwhelm us is really a waste of fireworks.

I lay in a dug-out from which I could follow the moon, and watch for daybreak. Now and again a shell crumbled the soil about me, and deafened me; then silence came again upon the frozen earth. I have paid the price, I have paid dearly, but I have had moments of solitude that were full of God.

I really think I have tried to adapt myself to my work, for, as I told you, I am proposed for the rank of sergeant and for mention in despatches. Ah, but, dearest mother, this war is long, too long for men who had something else to do in the world! What you tell me of the kind feeling there is for me in Paris gives me pleasure; but—am I not to be brought out of this for a better kind of usefulness? Why am I so sacrificed, when so many others, not my equals, are spared? Yet I had something worth doing to do in the world. Well, if God does not intend to take away this cup from me, His will be done.

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Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(a splendid afternoon).

Dear Mother,—Here we are again upon the battlefield. We have climbed the hill from which it would be better to praise the glory of God than to condemn the horrors of men. Innumerable dead at the setting-out of our march; but they grow fewer, leaving here and there some poor stray body, the colour of clay—a painful encounter. Our losses are what are called ‘serious’ in despatches.

At all events I can assure you that our men are admirable and their resignation is heroic. All deplore this infamous war, but nearly all feel that the fulfilment of a hideous duty is the one only thing that justifies the horrible necessity of living at such a time as this.

Dear mother, I cannot write more. The plain is settling to sleep under colours of violet and rose. How can things be so horrible?

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Dearest beloved Mother,—A second day in billets. To-morrow we go to the front. Darling, I can’t write to-day. Let us draw ever nearer to the eternal, let us remain devoted to our duty. I know how your thoughts fly to meet mine, and I turn mine towards the happiness of wisdom. Let us take courage; let me be brave among these young dead men, and be you brave in readiness. God is over us.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

We are in billets after the great battle. And this time I saw it all. I did my duty; I knew that by the feeling of my men for me. But the best are dead. Bitter loss. This heroic regiment. We gained our object. Will write at more length.
(1st day in billet).

Dear beloved Mother,—I will tell you about the goodness of God, and the horror of these things. The heaviness of heart that weighed me down this month and a half past was for the coming anguish to be undergone in these last twenty days.

We reached the scene of action on the 17th. The preparation ceased to interest me; I was all expectation of the event. It broke out at three o’clock: the explosion of seven mines under the enemy’s trenches. It was like a distant thunder. Next, five hundred guns created the hell into which we leapt.

Night was coming on when we established ourselves in the positions we had taken. All that night I was actively at work for the security of our men, who had not suffered much. I had to cover great tracts, over which were scattered the wounded and the dead of both sides. My heart yearned over them, but I had nothing better than words to give them. In the morning we were driven, with serious loss, back to our previous positions, but in the evening we attacked again; we retook our whole advance; here again I did my duty. In my advance I got the sword of an officer who surrendered; after that I placed my men for guarding our ground. The captain ordered me to his side, and I gave him the plan of our position. He was telling me of his decision to have me mentioned, when he was killed before my eyes.

Briefly, under the frightful fire of those three days, I organised and kept going the work of supplying cartridges; in this job five of my men were wounded. Our losses are terrible; those of the enemy greater still. You cannot imagine, beloved mother, what man will do against man. For five days my shoes have been slippery with human brains, I have walked among lungs, among entrails. The men eat, what little they have to eat, at the side of the dead. Our regiment was heroic; we have no officers left. They all died as brave men. Two good friends—one of them a fine model of my own for one of my last pictures—are killed. That was one of the terrible incidents of the evening. A white body, splendid under the moon! I lay down near him. The beauty of things awoke again for me.

At last, after five days of horror that lost us twelve hundred men, we were ordered back from the scene of abomination.

The regiment has been mentioned in despatches.

Dear mother, how shall I ever speak of the unspeakable things I have had to see? But how shall I ever tell of the certainties this tempest has made clear to me? Duty; effort.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

In these latter days I have passed through certain hours, made decisive hours for me by the visibility of great and universal problems. We have now been for five days in the front line, with exceedingly hard work, hampered by the terrible mud. As our days have followed each other, and as my own struggle against the frightful sadness of my soul continued, the military situation was growing more tense, and the preparation for action was pushing on. Then came the announcement of the order of attack. There was only a day left—perhaps two days. It was then I wrote you two letters, I think those of the 13th and 14th; and really, as I was writing, I had within my heart such a plenitude of conviction, such a sweetness of feeling, as give incontrovertible assurance of the reality of the beautiful and the good. The bombardment of our position was violent; but nothing that man can do is able to stifle or silence what Nature has to say to the human soul.

One night, between the 14th and the 15th, we were placed in trenches that were raked by machine-guns. Our men were so exhausted that they were obliged to give place to another battalion. We were waiting in the wet and the cold of night when suddenly the notice came that we were relieved. We could not tell why. But we are here again in this village, where the men deluge their poor hearts with wine. I am in the midst of them.

Dear mother, if there is one thing absolute in human feeling, it is pain. I had lived hitherto in the contemplation of the interesting relations of different emotions, losing sight of the price, the intrinsic value, of life itself. But now I know what is essential life. It is that which clears the soul’s way to the Absolute. But I suffered less in that time of waiting than I am suffering now from certain companionships.

9 o’clock.

Dear beloved Mother,—I was at dinner when they came to tell me we were off. I knew it would be so; the counter-orders that put off the attack cost us the march of forty kilometres in addition to the fatigues we had to undergo in the first line. As we were leaving our sector I noticed the arrival of such a quantity of artillery that I knew well enough the pause was at an end. But the soul has its own peace. It is frosty weather, with a sky full of stars.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

 

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(5th day in the front line).

All is movement about us; we too are afoot. Even as the inevitable takes shape, peace revisits my heart at last. My beloved country is defiled by these detestable preparations of battle; the silence is rent by the preliminary gun-fire; man succeeds for a time in cancelling all the beauty of the world. But I think it will even yet find a place of refuge. For twenty-four hours now I have been my own self.

Dear mother, I was wrong to think so much of my ‘tower of ivory.’ What we too often take for a tower of ivory is nothing more than an old cheese where a hermit rat has made his house.

Rather, may a better spirit move me to gratitude for the salutary shocks that tossed me out of too pleasant a place of peace; let us be thankful for the dispensation which, during certain hours—hours far apart but never to be forgotten—made a man of me.

No, no, I will not mourn over my dead youth. It led me by steep and devious ways to the tablelands where the mists that hung over intelligence are no more.