Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Our holiday is coming to an end in sweetness, while all is tumult and carnage not far off. I think the regiment has had a long march.

—-

Dear beloved Mother,—After so many graces granted me, I ought to have more confidence, and I intend to do my best to give myself wholly into the hands of God; but these are hard times. I have just heard of the death, among many others, of the friend whose bed I shared in our billet. He had just been appointed Second Lieutenant. Mother dear: Love. That is the only human feeling we may cherish now.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

A charming morning. A white sun swathing itself in mist, the fine outlines of trees on the heights, and the great spaces in light. It is a pause full of good luck. The other day, reading an old Revue des Deux Mondes of 1880, I came upon an excellent article as one might come upon a noble palace with vaulted roof and decorated walls. It was on Egypt, and was signed George Perrot.

Yesterday my battalion left these billets. I am obliged to stay behind for my instruction as sergeant. How thankful I am for this respite, laborious as it is, that gives me a chance of recovering what I care for most—a clear mind, and a heart open to the spirit of Nature.

I forgot to tell you that a day or two ago, during the storm, I saw the cranes coming home towards evening. A lull in the weather allowed me to hear their cry. To think how long it is since I saw them take flight from here! It was at the beginning of the winter, and they left everything the sadder for their going. And now it was for me like the coming of the dove to the ark; not that I deceived myself as to the dangers that had not ceased, but that these ambassadors of the air brought me a visible assurance of the universal peace beyond our human strife.

And yesterday the wild geese made for the north. They flew in various order, tracing regular formations in the sky; and then they disappeared over the horizon like a floating ribbon.

I am much gratified by M.C.’s appreciation. I always had a love of letters, even as a child, and I am only sorry that the break in my education, brought about by myself, leaves so many blanks. I keep, however, throughout all changes and chances, the faculty of gleaning to right and left some fallen grain. Of course, as I leave out the future, I say nothing of my wish to be introduced to him in happier times—that is out of our department just now.

I have written to Madame L. It is the last blow for her. The fate of some of us is as it were a medal on which are struck the image and superscription of sorrow. Adversity has worked so well that there is no room for any symbol of joy. But I think that this dedication of a life to grief is not unaccompanied by a secret compensation in the conviction that misfortune is at last complete; it is something to reach the high-water mark of the waters of sorrow. The fate of such sufferers seems to me to be an outpost showing others whence tribulation approaches.

Day by day a new crop is raised in the little military burial-ground here. And, over all, the triumphant spring.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(a post-card).

Dear beloved Mother,—I suppose that by now you know my good fortune in getting this platoon. Whatever God intends for me, this halt has given me the opportunity of regaining possession of myself, and of preparing myself to accept whatever may befall me. I send you my love and the union of our hearts in the face of fate.

 

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Sunday morning, in the Sabbath peace.

Dearest Mother,—Your good, life-giving letters have come at last, after my long privation, the price I paid for my enjoyment of rest. The pretty town is waking in the haze of the river, the waters hurry over their clean stones. All things have that look of moderation and charming finish that is characteristic of this part of the country.

I read a little, but I am so overtired by the physical exertion to which we are compelled, that I fall asleep on the instant. We are digging trenches and trenches.

Dear mother, to go back to those wonderful times of the end of February, I must repeat that my memory of them is something like that of an experiment in science. I had conceived violence under a theoretic formula; I had divined its part in the worlds. But I had not yet witnessed its actual practice, except in infinitely small examples. And now at last violence was displayed before me on such a scale that my whole faculty of receptiveness was called upon to face it. Well, it was interesting; and I may tell you that I never relaxed from my attitude of cool and impersonal watchfulness. What I had kept about me of my own individuality was a certain visual perceptiveness that caused me to register the setting of things, a setting that dramatised itself as ‘artistically’ as in any stage-management. During all those minutes I never relaxed in my resolve to see ‘how it was.’

I was very happy to find that the ‘intoxication of slaughter’ never had any possession of me. I hope it will always be so. Unfortunately, contact with the German race has for ever spoilt my opinion of those people. I cannot quite succeed in quelling a sensibility and a humanitarianism that I know to be misplaced, and that would make me the dupe of a treacherous enemy; but I have come to tolerate things which I had held in abomination as the very negation of life.

I have seen the French soldier fight. He is terrible in action, and after action magnanimous. That is the phrase. It is a very common commonplace; our greatest writers and the humblest of our schoolboys have trotted it out alike; and now my decadent ex-intellectualism finds nothing better to say at the sight of the soul of the Frenchman.

 

To Madame de L.

March 14, 1915.

My mother has told me of the new trial that has just come upon you. Truly life is crushing for some souls. I know your fortitude, and I know that you are only too well used to sorrow; but how much I wish that you had been spared this blow! My mother had written to me of the lack of any news of Colonel B., and she was anxious. It is the grief of those dear to us that troubles us out here. But there is in the sight of a soldier’s death a lesson of greatness and of immortality that arms our hearts; and our desire is that our beloved ones might share it with us. Be sure that the Colonel’s example will bear magnificent fruit. I know, for I have seen it, what heroism transfigures the soldier whose leader has fallen.

As for myself, the time has been rife with tragedies; throughout I have tried to do my duty.

I saw all my superior officers killed, and the whole regiment decimated. There can be no more human hope for those who are cast into this furnace. I place myself in the hands of God, asking of Him that He would keep me in such a state of heart and soul as may enable me to enjoy and love in His creation all the beauty that man has not yet denied and concealed.

All else has lost proportion in my life.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Darling Mother,—I have nothing to say about my life, which is filled up with manual labour. At moments perhaps some image appears, some memory rises. I have just read a fine article by Renan on the origins of the Bible. I found it in a Revue des Deux Mondes of 1886. If later I can remember something of it, I may be able to put my very scattered notions on that matter into better order.

I feel as though I were recovering from typhoid fever. What I chiefly enjoy is water; the running and the sleeping waters of the Meuse. The springs play on weeds and pebbles. The ponds lie quiet under great trees. Streams and waterfalls. On the steep hillsides the snow looks brilliant and visionary. I live in all these things without forms of words. And I am rather ashamed to be vegetating, though I think all must pass through this phase, just removed from the hell of the front. I eat, and when my horrid rheumatism allows, I sleep.

Don’t be angry with my inferiority. I feel as though my armour had been taken off. Well, I can’t help it.

5 o’clock.

I am a good deal tired by drill. But the fine air of the Meuse keeps me in health. Dear mother, I wish I might always seek all that is noble and good. I wish I might always feel within myself the inspiration that urges towards the true treasures of life. But alas! just now I have a mind of lead.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

half-past ten.

Dear beloved Mother,—I am filling up the idleness of this morning. I am rejoicing in the clear waters of the Meuse that give life to dales and gardens. The play of the current over weeds and pebbles makes a soothing sight for my tired eyes, and expresses the calm life of this big village that is sheltered by the Meuse hills. The church here is thronged with soldiers who possess, as I do, a definite intuition of the Ideal, but who seek it by more stated and less immediate means.

I am to board for a fortnight in the house in which, nearly two months ago, our joyous company used to meet. To-day I have seen the tears of these same friends, weeping to hear of the wounded and the dead.

I received your sleeping-sack, which is quite right. I am worried with rheumatism, which has spoilt many of my nights in billets these two months past.

Darling mother, here is a calm in the noise of that barrack-life which must now be ours. As there are none here but non-commissioned officers, they are all ordered to hard jobs, and I shall renew my acquaintance with brooms and burdens. We have been warned; we shall have to work with our hands. And so we learn to direct others.

(another letter).

Soft weather after rain. Bells in the evening; flowing waters singing under the bridges; trees settling to sleep.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(6th day in billets).

I wish I could recover in myself the extreme sensibilities I felt before the fiery trial, so that I might describe for you the colours and the aspects of the drama we have passed through. But just now I am in a state of numbness, pleasant enough in itself, yet apt to hinder my vision of things present and my forecasts of things to come. I have to make an effort to keep hold of eternal and essential things; perhaps I shall succeed in time.

And yet certain sights on the wasted field of war had so noble a lesson, a teaching so persuasive, that I should love to share with you the great certainties of those days. How harmonious is death within the natural soil, how admirable is the manner of man’s return to the substance of his mother earth, compared with the poverty of funeral ceremonial! Yesterday I thought of those poor dead as forsaken things. But I had been present at the burial of an officer, and it seems to me that Nature is more compassionate than man. Yes indeed, the soldier’s death is close to natural things. It is a frank horror, a horror that does not attempt to cheat the law of violence. I often passed close to bodies that were gradually passing into the clay, and their change seemed more comforting than the cold and unchanging aspect of the tombs of town cemeteries. From our life in the open we have gained a freedom of conception, an amplitude of thought and of habit, which will for ever make cities horrible and artificial to those who survive the war.

Dear mother, I write but ill of things that I have greatly felt. Let us seek refuge in the peace of spring and in the treasure of the present moment.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

(in a billet).

This is the fourth day of rest, for me almost a holiday time. Rather a sad holiday, I own; it reminds me of certain visits to Marlotte. These days have been spent in attempts to recover from physical fatigue and moral weariness, and in the filling up of vacant hours. Still, a kind of holiday, a halt rather, giving one time to arrange one’s impressions, so long confused by the violence of action.

I have been stupefied by the noise of the shells. Think—from the French side alone forty thousand have passed over our heads, and from the German side about as many, with this difference, that the enemy shells burst right upon us. For my own part, I was buried by three 305 shells at once, to say nothing of the innumerable shrapnel going off close by. You may gather that my brain was a good deal shaken. And now I am reading. I have just read in a magazine an article on three new novels, and that reading relieved many of the cares of battle.

I have received a most beautiful letter from André, who must be a neighbour of mine out here. He thinks as I do about our dreadful war literature. What does flourish is a faculty of musical improvisation. All last night I heard the loveliest symphonies, fully orchestral; and I am bound to say that they owed their best to the great music that is Germany’s.

After my experiences I must really let myself go a little in the pleasure of this furtive sun of March.

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.

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?