Young Soldiers of France
BY MAURICE BARRÈS
MEMBER OF THE FRENCH ACADEMY
TO-DAY the noble-hearted American nation is asking on its own account the question which, for nearly three years now, the French nation has been asking itself: ‘What will be the outcome of this war, which is modifying our national soul? What manner of men will come back to us from the trenches when victory has been won?’
For two years and a half, our young soldiers have been learning the lessons of war; shoulder to shoulder they have been winning their manhood, their croix de guerre, their promotions. They are being formed on the same model; they are being initiated into the rules of discipline and system; they are amassing a treasure of sober thoughts, and friendships which will suffice for the whole duration of their lives. By virtue of their profound impressions, their first tremendous experiences, every man of them belongs now and for all time to the world of the trenches. Such an education means a France unified and purified. In these young men is taking place a resurrection of our most glorious days. Some great thing is about to come into being.
I should like to show you the eyes of these radiant boys, turned toward the future, full of life, full of love of nature, of their parents, of their country, and consenting so readily to die; but how can I make you see the unforgettable purity of their gaze as they scan the horizon, seeking, not their own destiny, but the destiny of their country? Better far to call some of them in person from the ranks — youths chosen at random from the length and breadth of France; they shall speak to us themselves, and let us see, with no barrier between us, the boundless goodwill shining from their faces. Let us listen to these soldier-boys, beloved of their comrades, unknown to their commanders, lost in the rank and file, as they open their hearts to their families.
We shall see that the task they have set themselves is the glorification of their country at the cost of their blood. It is their will that from this slaughter France, and, through her, all mankind, shall flower anew.
Young Alfred Eugène Cazalis, a pastor’s son — student at the Theological Seminary of Montauban, and a private in the 11th Regiment of Infantry, who died for France at nineteen, writes to his parents, —
‘ More and more, in the face of all those who have struggled and fallen, in the presence of the mighty effort which has been made, my thoughts turn to the France of to-morrow — to the divine France which is bound to be. I could not fight on, if I did not hope for the birth of that France, so richly deserving that men should kill one another and die for her sake.’
Jean Rival, a Grenoble boy, son of a college professor, who died for France in his twentieth year, writes to his younger brother, —
‘ My greatest comfort in the difficult moments which I must endure here is to think that you, my little brothers and sisters, are all doing your duty as I am. My task is to fight like a brave soldier; yours, to work just as courageously. Small and unimportant as you may seem to be in this great France of ours, you owe it to yourself to do your utmost to make yourself bigger, richer, nobler. After the war France will sorely need intelligent minds and strong arms; and you, the boys of today, will be the young manhood of tomorrow. You will be called on then to take the place of a soldier who has died for our country.’
Léo Latil, the son of a doctor of Aixen-Provence, sergeant in the 67th Infantry, died for France at twenty-four. He writes to his family, •—
‘ Our sacrifices will be sweet if we win a great and glorious victory, — if there shall be more light for the souls of men; if truth shall come forth more radiant, better beloved. We must not forget for a moment that we are fighting for great things —for the very greatest things. In every sense, this victory of ours will be a victory of the forces of idealism.’
Young Antoine Boisson, born of a family of soldiers, at Lure, in one of those little towns of Eastern France so rich in the military virtues, left his lycée to enlist, at the outbreak of war. While an aspirant in the 47th Regiment of Artillery, he died for France at eightteen. In his diary — the date is January 1, 1916 — he writes, —
‘ To-day begins the new year. It will be the year of victory. What will it mean for me? The greatest year of my life, surely, if God grants that I survive. I am going to fight; I am going to take part in war — in real war, in a holy war which, for seventeen months, has numbered so many victims — friends, comrades, fellow countrymen. Whatever destiny may be awaiting me, I shall waste no time thinking about the future. I confess I said to myself this morning, “ What will be left of me when still another year has taken the place of this one ? ” But my conscience quickly replied, “Do your duty, your whole duty. That is the only thought worthy of a volunteer soldier like yourself.” Let soul and heart obliterate the animal instincts and the revolt of one’s baser nature. A man must hold up to himself some great dream to follow, some goal to reach. And what is this war for, if not to train character? It has developed within me feelings I am proud of, though I am at a loss to say why.
‘ I am proud of being a soldier, of being young, of knowing that I am brave and high-spirited; I am proud of serving France, the land of my birth. Loyalty to the flag, love of country, respect for the given word, the sense of honor — these, for me, are no hollow, meaningless phrases; they ring like a buglecall in my young heart, and for them, when the moment comes, I shall be able to make the supreme sacrifice.’
Ten thousand voices, all in harmony, rise from the young men of the classes of 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917, in response to their country’s call. A junior officer, detailed in November, 1914, to instruct some Norman and Breton recruits — boys called to the colors before their time — at the barracks of Saint-Lô, set his pupils their daily exercise in writing. Here, taken at random, is what one of them wrote: —
‘ Tremble, Germans! France hastens to invoke her greatest hope, the class of 1914. They are twenty years old. Mere boys, you say: what chance have they against the “kolossal” German army? What can they do, these young men whose strong hands, already trained, are lovingly fondling the stocks of their rifles? They will do as did their forefathers — the men of Valmy, of Austerlitz, of Rivoli, and of Solferino! They will conquer!’
Sublime though they all are, these voices differ. Every one of these pages, taken from the field-diaries of our young soldiers, is a variant of the same high theme: there are no two identical leaves in the whole vast forest, but each one, in these days of storm, yearns to come fluttering down to earth, that earth may be the richer for their fall. These boys consecrate themselves to the most glorious destiny. And so, while they are making the France of to-morrow, France herself is being made in them. Already this miracle is manifest on the surface of their lives, in their words, in their acts. O blessed augury!
I have no wish to make the mistake of classifying their aspirations, their flights of soul, and of crystallizing too hastily this free and flexible spirit. Let us watch the young sensibilities of these soldiers as they live and breathe and take color; and from day to day, as we read their letters and follow the emotions they share with their families, we shall see that their instincts are beginning to work with the harmony and coördination of some great mechanism. Beneath the surface of the ocean, all torn by terrible whirlpools, thousands of tiny coral islands are drawing together, fusing themselves into one. A new world is coming into being.
Léo Latil left his home at Aix-enProvence, where, near his family, he was studying for his degree of doctor of philosophy under the guidance of Maurice Blondel, the far-famed author of L’Action.
‘What charming hillsides, what noble rivers!’ writes this young Provençal, as he goes farther north; ‘truly, this country of France is worth fighting for!’
He comes to the forests of the Meuse, close by the low hills, the springs, and groves that Jeanne d’Arc knew.
‘A wooded slope, terraced with three lines of trenches. Opposite, across the valley, they are in possession. What a glorious countryside! in all France, none lovelier! If you only knew what good friends to soldiers the woods are! Under their protection one may venture forth from dug-outs and bombproofs; one may bathe in living springs, and the Taubes see nothing. One drawback only: those ugly brutes across the valley climb stealthily up the trees and snipe at us.’
I know of no pastoral poetry more limpid, more crystal-clear than these letters, in which one seems to catch a fleeting glimpse of Cowper’s hare, and the partridges of Francis Jammes. Our young warrior watches them flash past with his good-humored smile:
‘The one thought that helps me through all trials is that we are spending every moment close to Nature, and growing to know her as no mere civilian could ever hope to do. One evening, when the little schoolmaster and I had come back late, and every scrap of room in the bunk-house was taken, we flung ourselves down side by side at the foot of a big beech. Scarcely a moment before the rain began to murmur beneath the leaves. The great tree had not been able to protect us. But then I thought, “What harm can come to me from this Nature, which has been so friendly?” Another evening, in a lonely dell, I heard a nightingale sing so wondrously that its voice held us silent for a long, long time. Nature consoles me; she is my friend; I am in her confidence. I have learned the secrets of every hour of day and night. In these Meuse woods, which I call my woods, I have seen every little leaf born, every copse turn green anew. They shelter me and protect me when the ordeal is at hand.’
This fellowship with Nature — frequent enough among our young soldiers — is touching indeed. In her they find a mother whom boys of their age, in a happier life, are slow to recognize. As I listen to Léo Latil, I seem to see an exile, some young descendant of Theocritus and Virgil, a Sicilian shepherd, in our forests of Lorraine; and as I am about to speak my thought, he takes the words from my mouth: —
‘The moonlight is magnificent. I have slept like a shepherd on a couch of dead leaves, in spite of the fearful noise of the 75’s, which are clattering away behind us.’
Others have loved Nature as dearly as this boy loved her, and Maurice de Guérin, coming from his fair Southland, felt the influence of the Northern sky as quickly as the young Provençal. But what is the end of their sylvan intoxication? Léo Latil turns it to good account: ‘I am determined to set free those hillsides, those tree-tops waving rhythmically behind the enemy’s trenches.’
He repeats the thought later. This fusion of calm, peaceful impressions of the Meuse woodlands with the burning spirit of sacrifice stirs one almost to the point of anguish. For this young soldier there exists no imaginary conflict between the cult of Nature and heroic Christianity. Self-immolation, the spirit of sacrifice, have seemed to us irreconcilable with this enchantress. How easily he subordinates great Pan to the Son of God crucified! The beauty of the skies, the forests, the rivers of France furnishes him with just so many more incentives to the fulfillment of his duty.
Moreover, the memories of home life, the daily letters breathing forth the fragrance of happiness and affection so pervasive in happy households, far from sapping the purpose of this young heart, make it all the firmer.
A child is born into the family circle. To the young mother Léo Latil writes:
‘All my best wishes to you! After all, the poilu is not indestructible, and care must be taken to replace him. Then, too, it is good to think we are fighting for all those little children, who shall have free and peaceful lives.’
Though his thoughts wander back to the home in Aix-la-Provence, or give themselves over to Nature, he remains faithful to the realities of his soldier’s life.
‘ I wish you could have seen the procession of poilus coming back from the trenches to the rear. Heavily bearded they are, and long-haired; caked with mud, plodding along on their sticks, and carrying on their backs a large and strange collection of bedding, tools, and camp-dishes. One might think that all the beggars and the luckless from all the highways of the world were filing past; but their spirit is so splendid that we always feel like cheering them. . . .
‘I am now serving my apprenticeship as sergeant. Nothing difficult about it, but one must keep one’s mind on a hundred little things, and with it all never forget to be just. One must know how to demand a great deal, to have authority, and to acquire still more, without losing the human touch. One must be able to hearten one’s men and console them. All this can be acquired, and is well worth trying for.’
This lofty idea of the dignity of command, this fine anxiety to make the most of one of the humblest ranks of the system, show us that beneath all this fragrant poetry, joyous and perfect in taste as the deathless songs of Mistral, there breathes a stout soul.
‘Do not pray,’ he writes to his family, ‘that I may be spared suffering. Pray rather that I may be able to bear it, and that the courage I long for may be given me.’
In such souls there are no dark corners. They are penetrated by the full light of day, even to the innermost arcana. His family, his beloved land of France, his brothers-in-arms, his religion — these are the voices which call this lovable boy to his duty. He is ready now for whatever may come; he is about to leave the country of Jeanne d’Arc — in September, when autumn in Lorraine is most poignantly lovely. And in this same month the young hero is to fulfill his destiny.
‘If you could only have seen our leave-taking! Evening; the kitchen of a country inn — a great Lorraine kitchen, clean as could be, with a roaring blaze in the huge fireplace. Already day was drawing her veil about her, and the night-mists were rising from the marsh-lands. The table was loaded with bottles of wine which the proprietor had brought up. We stood around, leaning on our rifles; the two little girls, over in the corner, were sobbing as if their hearts would break. Even the old man himself was upset. As for us, we were cracking jokes; I swaggered about, with my American pipe between my teeth. Once more, for the last time, we drank each other’s healths and kissed cheeks wet with tears; then we filed out into the darkness, dragging our gun-stocks over the floor. It was all like some quaint old picture — one of those moments of poetry or legend which you might think could exist only in books.’
Before he says farewell to this Lorraine of which he wrote, ‘ We shall come back as pilgrims, after the war, to this green Lorraine with its rolling hills, its meadows, and its woods,’— before he dies, let us enjoy one more of this young Provençal’s pictures of the Bar-le-Duc countryside: —
‘We were in an orchard, lying at ease, awaiting orders. I had forbidden my men to pick any of the plums; they could only gather up the wind-falls lying in the grass. The little boys of the village, however, who were always trailing along behind us, swarmed up the trees and shook them. What a downpour of plums — and how good they were!’
O Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in comparison with this, your cherry tree at Annécy and your two charming girls count for little indeed! Here, young warriors of France are resting in the grass, and the village urchins of Lorraine are shaking the plum trees!
One moment more: we can never have too many of these sketches by young hands now dead. From this one eight lines stand out — eight swiftly drawn lines, a moral portrait, as it were, which I would gladly have a foreigner carry away with him as the likeness of the typical young Frenchman. Those who can measure its restraint, its depth, may know that they are capable of appreciating the best that our race has to offer.
‘Sometimes,’ writes Léo Latil, ‘I find myself pursuing a dream; but for the most part I am one with my men, living their life with my whole heart. They are such splendid fellows, so many of them! And besides, I love this solitude with its tang of bitterness, these ceaseless mortifications of the flesh, these moods of the purified soul, ever ready for prayer.’
Thus, in the land of Saint Louis, of Jeanne d’Arc and Pascal, speaks a young soldier gently born, who combines, after the high French manner, the three gifts of dreaming, of generosity, and of a soaring spirit. A perfect young man!
On the evening of September 27, 1915, Léo Latil fell at the edge of a German trench, west of the farm of Navarin, in Champagne, as he was leading the bayonet-charge of a section of the 67th Regiment, whose lieutenant had just been killed.
And now let us see and hear Alfred Cazalis, the son and grandson of missionary clergymen. Alfred Cazalis is the very spirit of tender, stirring orthodoxy, of dogma translated into charity and sympathy — a fine, lovable boy who says to God, ‘To Thee I belong, and to all my brothers.’ Eighteen years old, and bred in a very fervor of religion, he brings all his heart’s devotion to his war-life, so pitifully short. To this noble young Calvinist, the vision comes in a remarkable form; but burning within is the longing, shared alike by all these soldier-boys, to create a more transcendently lovely France.
‘First and foremost,’ he says, ‘my preoccupation has been with the righteousness of this war. I know that our cause is just and good, and that the right is on our side. But this war must not be sterile; from all these deaths there must burst forth new life for mankind.
‘I think ceaselessly of the France of to-morrow, of that young France whose hour is at hand. A consecrated France it must be, in which there will be no purpose in life save Duty. Men will live only in so far as they realize their duty and strive to fulfill it. And it is for us Protestants — or rather, for us believers — to reveal this new life to the world.
’Our duty, then, is to go forth as apostles. Our duty is plain; Jesus has defined it: “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Perfect through ourselves — that is, developing our personalities to their utmost limit, making them yield the last least thing of which they are capable, and bringing them up to the ideal stature of Christ. Then, too, perfect through others (for surely we believe in the communion of saints!), which means praying for them, that they may learn to bend conscience and will before the kingly will of God.’
These are his first thoughts; this is the abiding faith of this boy, steeped as he is in the religious spirit of his home. Day by day, during his short apprenticeship to life, he devotes himself passionately to learning the lesson of facts.
While in barracks, he writes, —■
‘ I am trying to profit by these days of rest to prepare myself still more fully. I have time to read and meditate. Each morning, I try to get away to the hillsides to pray, and as evening comes on, I go to the church for a moment to collect my thoughts.’
Above all, however, he tries to know what action means. ‘I have often dreamed,’ he writes, ‘of that hour when I shall enter into reality.’ One day, in the trenches, his thoughts turned to death, and he sought a remedy for it.
‘I find it infinitely sweet, in moments like this, to feel that there are others close by us, who, if we should fall by the way, will snatch up and hold high the blazing torch which we have been carrying forward.’
Suddenly he breaks off, and the sinister birds take flight.
‘Others!’ he says. ‘Have I not too much faith in life and its preciousness to be content with that hypothesis? It is not for death that I would prepare myself, but for life. For life eternal, no doubt, but for the more immediate matter of earthly life as well. When war is over and I go home, I must be a changed being. I shall have no right to be as I formerly was — or the lesson will all have been in vain. Through the war mankind must be reborn, and is it not our duty to be reborn first of all?’
Thus he reconciles tragic eventualities with his young love of life; thus he decides that he will conquer, and that even beyond the grave he will toil on and pursue into eternity itself his earthly spiritual task.
‘A grave moment is at hand. There is to be a bayonet charge. If I do not come back, one thing only I ask: may the tiny flame of consecrated forces which was in me descend upon those whom I loved and who loved me — upon all my comrades in faith and in toil.’
Then follows another utterance, equally sybilline: —
‘ Already I feel a change coming over me. The abstract being which was in me is falling asunder, and numberless realities of the spiritual order which were once mere phantoms are becoming flesh and blood to me through an experience which is renewed every instant. I am learning to live.’
What does this mean? What is this life whose meaning this boy is learning at the same time that he learns to die? That is the great secret. But I seem to listen in amazement to fresh accents from the shadowy young lips. Existence, he tells us, may be a ceaseless elimination, a progression, a development which commences here below and continues when the spirit, taking flight into the heavens, fully unfolds that which was its essential inner nature. Eternal life (if I understand this mysterious young Levite aright) is not rest, but a prolongation of the noble task begun on earth. Earthly life is a rough sketch, so to speak, of the deathless existence, and suffers no change of quality beyond the grave. After dissolution, men will continue to act. The young soldiers who have fallen for France will take up again the sacred work of their country.
Beneath these charmingly inadequate words (one might fancy them a stumbling translation of the ‘Cantique des Anges’) I see with admiration how complete has been the victory, in these young hearts, of war-time discipline over the seething anarchy in which we found so much beauty only yesterday. What a wild yearning toward grouplife! How urgent a need to form, across time and space, an indissoluble union with souls capable of creation! What a splendid determination to make one’s self eternally at one with the best! Four days before his death this spiritual boy, stirred by some presentiment, set about coming to conclusions with his soul and recapitulating his deepest experiences: —
‘First of all, my experience of men. In these hours when, every instant, one’s life is in peril, they show themselves in their true colors, with no false semblance either of evil or of good. Everything within them that is mere factitious acquisition or pretense is sloughed off; and so one gets to know men’s souls under conditions that doubtless will never recur again.
‘Then, my experience of the communion of saints. Never a moment when I did not feel close to my people, to all those that I love; never should I have believed that, in spite of great distances, they could seem as near as the men who are fighting at my side.
‘Thus it was that I reached the greatest of the three experiences — a realization of the marvelous and incomparable worth of prayer.’
Four days later, on May 9, 1915, at Roclincourt in Artois, Alfred Cazalis died by the side of his lieutenant, in a bayonet-charge. His major, who was himself to fall three days later, wrote at the time to Pastor Cazalis, ‘ I mourn all my beloved young soldiers, but above all your son, who prayed with me the evening before battle.’
I rejoice in copying such pages as these; I linger fondly over the yearning of these heroic young spirits; their thoughts follow no order save the ascending course of my admiration.
Jean Rival, at nineteen years of age, was an aspirant in the 14th Battalion of Chasseurs. Like Boisson, Cazalis, Latil, and all his other young brothersin-arms, he was in love with life. In the midst of danger these young souls declare their love for light and space and movement and hope; but they put France first, and Jean Rival writes to a young kinswoman a letter in which the song of leave-taking, the eternal song of the twentieth year, is blended with and made secondary to the hymn of sacrifice accepted.
‘ I feel within me such an intensity of life, such a need of loving and of being loved, of unfolding, of admiring, of drawing great joyous breaths, that I cannot believe that death will lay hands on me. And yet I know well that commanding a section is deadly perilous. To lead soldiers to battle is to make one’s self a target. Many have fallen; many more will yet fall. I have just learned of the death of several comrades who came to the front only a short while ago as aspirants. If this should be my lot, I count on you, dear J——,to console my parents. You must tell them that I died facing the enemy, protecting France with my body, and that they did not bring their son to his twentieth year in vain, since they have given our country one more defender. Tell them that my blood has not flowed for nothing, and that the countless tragic sacrifices of individual lives will save the life of France.’
These boys wish no pity for their hard life; they do not ask to be spared or admired.
‘I learned to my amazement,’ he writes to his parents, ‘ that M—— went to see Captain V—— and Major de R about me. That is too bad. Let M—— go about her own business and keep calm. And why do you always call me “poor” Jean? We have no liking to be pitied that way! Say “my dear Jean,” or “good old Jean,” or “little Jean”; but why “poor”? Is it because I am doing my duty like all my comrades?’
And what is his duty? What sort of life is he leading in the terrible sector of the Tête de Faux ?
‘We are within thirty or forty metres of the Boches. One can only move about in deep, narrow trenches, filled with mud and puddles of water separated by big stones, which give way under one’s feet. A single shot may presage an attack. All night long I go the rounds, and when day comes, I must oversee the trench-works, so that I have n’t a moment to myself. I can hardly snatch a bit of sleep on damp straw, in a dug-out which I must enter on all fours. Nevertheless, our spirits are of the best.
‘I am in command of a platoon — that is, two sections — my own and that of the adjutant, who has a shellwound. The responsibility is considerable, but little by little one gets used to it. Only the reliefs are troublesome. You start off about midnight, follow through the black shadows of the pines a path filled with stones and slippery with sleet; keep dead silence; fall down; get up again; lose your way; find it once more; and, having ultimately arrived at your destination, station the sentries, send the men to bed, spot the trenches where the fighting is going on, in case of an attack; then finally fling yourself down on the straw, revolver close at hand — that is what a relief is!’
And yet listen to the joyous greeting which the young soldier sends forth from this abode of anguish and death. It is Easter Sunday, 1915.
‘Happy Easter, Happy Easter! You must excuse this poor little letter; I am no longer in the rest-camp, but in the first-line trench, in a gloomy dug-out where the rain beats in, and I can’t stand up straight. I have the command of two sections now, so there is plenty to do. Still, I have time to tell you that all goes well, that I love you, and that I am happy with my lot. Happy Easter!’
What an intensity of inner life is revealed by such a letter — still more by this exclamation which I take from another missive: ‘Land of Alsace, which I love as dearly as my own Dauphiné!’
Is it not admirable, the spirituality of this outcry from a boy of twenty years who, at his humble post, suffersnight and day in the mire? Whence comes this sublimation of great-heartedness?
Listen to this utterance of a young French knight-errant, pure of heart: —
‘Dear J-, how can I thank you for all the good you do me with those letters of yours, so full of warm, cheering words, sweet as those of the elder sister I always longed for, and whom I find in you! What am I to do to prove myself grateful? Fight bravely, to defend you, to defend along with you all the maidens of France who to-day consecrate themselves to their brothers at the front! Fight bravely, to spare you the loathsome touch of these barbarians, whom we have been holding back here, one battalion against two, for a month and a half! ‘On the day of the attack, dear J——, at the supreme moment when, at the signal of my captain, I shall go up and over the ramparts with my men, shouting, “En avant, à la baionette !” — at that superbly tragic moment when one stakes one’s life, I shall think of you, rest assured of it. “Forward, boys, forward! At them, with the bayonet, for our sisters, the women of France! ” ’
This boy stands on the threshold of all the paradises he has not yet known, and seeks to defend them, without one single thought of self. How faint grows the blazing song of the young Sophocles at Salamis beside this flame, which no base fuel nourishes! And all are alike! To the cry of Jean Rival, ‘At them, with the bayonet, for our sisters, the women of France!’ there comes the answering cry of young Bernard-Claudius Lavergne. On the 23d of May, 1915, in Artois, he shouts, ‘The moment has come. Forward, with the bayonet, for France and our mothers!’
And this tender exaltation is joined to the soundest reason. These boys, whom a superficial passer-by might see wrapped in a roseate mist of enthusiasm, possess true wisdom, won not from theories, but from their own experience. Jean Rival realizes that he is an officer whose duty it is to forge the weapon of victory by fanning in his men the fire of cheerfulness. This boy of nineteen writes, in the course of a familiar letter, a page of which historians of the war will do well to take note.
‘If, taking it by and large, one may find (here at the front) a sane and noble spirit, it is utterly different from that which exists in the barracks and behind the lines. A spirit of unconsciousness and fatalism in some, of sober courage in others, and of cold resignation in others still. . . . For my part, I have always believed in the necessity of the “chosen few,” but of a chosen few truly worthy of the name, pervaded by a sense of duty, influencing and educating the masses. The chosen few, at this present moment, are brave and firm of purpose; they are the leaders in the war, and it is they who will bring it triumphantly to an end, for the masses are, in general, long-suffering, enduring, and easily stirred to glorious strife. The officer holds in his hand a mighty implement. If only he is a good workman, — that is, if he passionately loves his profession and his country, — be sure that he will turn out a work of art.’
The wonder is that this young warrior, who knows how to avoid cheap sentimentality and false demagogic claptrap, preserves the noble humanity of his soul. Herein lies the miracle of French reason, the divine pliancy of our race, when we are at our highest pitch of perfection.
‘ The mad pranks of our chasseurs at Grenoble? Yes, I know, but they are good fellows, nevertheless. If they know how to fight, they also know how to have their fun, and, upon my soul, who can reproach them for that? Here, too, when our men come into Plainfang after months in the trenches, they act like sailors returning from a long voyage. They kick over the traces: wine, cigars, merry songs — it’s all part of the game. The officers can’t get angry; in fact, they have no right to. What does it all matter if, after these few irregularities, the rascals throw themselves heart and soul into the charge? Needless to tell you that the irregularities of your nephew are on a small scale. A glass or two of old wine, a few cigarettes, and also — to be frank with you — a few smiles at the Alsatian girls: that’s all. Have no fear for the damnation of my soul.’
What say you to this? Was not old Nestor, so revered by those garrulous Greeks, a mere schoolboy by the side of this young non-commissioned officer of nineteen years? Blood-spattered experience joined to stainless purity of heart: was ever the like of this in the world before? One’s admiration is blended with sorrow in reading a letter in which the boy tells how deeply stirred he has been by the sight of a village first-communion; then, abruptly changing the subject, he enjoins calmness and energy upon his family. Or still another letter, with its burden of charming gratitude, in which this young soldier, who is giving his very life, grows solicitous lest the tiny sums sent him by his relatives can ill be spared from the modest home. Then, finally, there is that letter written on his father’s birthday, in which he says, all forgetful of his own sacrifice, ‘You may be sure that I understand the feelings of a father who sees his son of twenty years, whom he has reared at the cost of so much toil and care and thrift, setting out for the great Unknown of war.’
So it goes. Is it not splendid — this strong will dominating a tender, joyous heart?
And now, having taken stock of his ability, his courage, and the devotion of his men, he says, ‘All is ready.’ Here is his last letter to his young confidant: —
‘Dear J——, to-morrow at dawn, to the strains of Sidi Brahim and the Marseillaise, we shall charge the German lines. The attack will probably finish me. On the evening before this great day, which may be my last, I remind you of your promise. Keep up my mother’s courage; for a week or more she will receive no news. Tell her that when an advance is at hand no soldier can write to his loved ones; he must content himself with thinking about them. And if the time goes by and she hears nothing of me, let her live in hope; keep up her courage. Then, if you learn at last that I have fallen on the field of honor, let your heart speak those words that will bring her solace.
‘This morning I attended mass and took communion some few metres back of the trenches. If I die, I shall die as a Christian and a Frenchman.
‘I believe in God, in France, in Victory. I believe in beauty, youth, and life.
‘God guard me to the very end. But if my blood is needed for our triumph — Thy will be done, O Lord!’
If my only object were to make known and beloved this young nature, at once so tender and so strong, I might feel that with these ultima verba my task was done; I might even have closed with the young soldier’s acclamation of ‘beauty, youth, and life.’ I feel it a sort of holy duty, however, to transcribe every one of these words which do such high honor to our race. In Jean Rival and all his brothers-in-arms there is not the least preoccupation with glory; no wish save to do that which is right. They pour forth the fragrance of their souls with no thought of producing an effect — but they are the diadem of France; they must be seen by the whole world, not as a reward to them, who are beyond all recompense, but for the glory of our country.
The attack of Le Linge began on July 20, 1915, about eleven o’clock. At one o’clock, Jean Rival, leading his section, fell dead with a bullet in his forehead. He lies at rest in the sacred soil of Alsace.
I must stop. And how unwillingly I do so! There is a multitude of young soldiers, all the peers of those whom I have described. Every one of them should be heard.
Joseph Cloupeau, who died on the field of honor at nineteen, said, ‘How good it is to be of some use, even if one must pay for it with one’s life!’ And, revealing in that dawn the beauty of a harmonious life, he was able to declare, ‘ I am not a Christian and a soldier; I am a Christian soldier.’
Young Alfred Aeschiman, who died for France just before leaving the military dépôt of Aubagne, was walking one Sunday in February, 1915, through pine woods and sun-soaked groves of olives. ‘How hard it is to accept death when one is twenty years old!’ he murmured. ‘ I must never cease to keep before me the great ideals for which I am going to fight; and compare the worth of a mean, impure personality with that of the moral principles which are the glory of the human race.’
The young volunteer Paul Guieysse (he has since fallen on the battlefield) confides to the friend who accompanies him to the recruiting-station, ‘ I love life so dearly that if I did not have unswerving faith in the immortality of the soul, perhaps I might hesitate to enlist.’
Michel Penet, a boy of nineteen, in the 8th Regiment of Chasseurs à pied, writes: ‘If only you could have been with me when the volunteers were called for! The lieutenant was there, with a copy of the ministerial decree in his hand. “Who wishes to join the army of invasion? ” In a moment every arm was raised; there was but a single cry, “I do! I do!” It was more than mere patriotism that set all those caps waving in the air; it was more than mere hatred for the German nation; it was vengeance. I have seen soldiers argue with their officers because they would not let them go; I have seen some of them weeping with rage. Every one of us has his quota of deaths to avenge.’
This 8th regiment had already been sent forward under fire eight times. Their lieutenant said to his men, ‘You know, all of you, that the chasseurs are not made to live.’ Joyously the young soldier goes out to meet his destiny. ‘I am going forward with full confidence in the divine mercy,’ he says. ‘Of course it is hard to make such a sacrifice when one is not yet twenty. That is the age when life is good to live. Tomorrow we shall be in the Argonne; it will be a struggle to the finish. I shall fight for France, offering my heart to God; and when evening comes and the battle is over, I shall be resting for a few moments, and my thoughts will go out to you, who love me so much, and whom I love still more dearly. When night comes, our hearts will be united.’ Of his march to the firing-lines, he says, ‘The thing that impressed me most deeply was the old women. How many of them I saw wiping their eyes as they watched our splendid battalion swing by!’ By the 20th of April, 1915, he had reached the trenches, and on May 29 he met a hero’s end.
Only the dead have spoken to us here. This is seemly; we need put no curb on our praise. The living, however, are in every way their peers. Though they have not received the supreme consecration, theirs is the compensating glory of continuous service. All these splendid boys, scarcely emerged from childhood, are part and parcel of their generation; in them its beauty comes to full flower; they pour forth its fragrance before the action of time hardens them into individuals. Lithe bodies, sensitive and gentle souls, in whom strength has awakened before its season, truth-loving and modest unto humility, knowing well their honor and their duty, these soldiers of seventeen, eighteen, twenty years are truly ‘sons of France,’ as an admiring world calls them. ‘Weariness?’ they say in unison. ‘It is a matter of energy, of moral resistance, rather than physical strength.’ Every one of their biographies would tell of the deepening of the soul; and in the inner sanctuary of all these different souls there burns the same fire.
Have you noticed that they speak constantly of God — that they pray?
Captain André Cornet-Anquier, a Protestant soldier who died for France, tells us: ‘A Catholic captain said the other day that he prayed before every engagement. The major observed that it was no time for such things, and that he would do better to attend to his orders. ‘Major,’ replied the other man, ‘it does n’t prevent me from taking my orders and fighting, and I feel the stronger for it.’ Then I broke in: ‘ Captain, I do as you do, and I also am strengthened.’
‘Those happen to be two believers,’ you will say. ‘There are always some of them to be found.’ Yes, but they are men of different religions, and they agree. About what? A fact. What does prayer mean to these soldiers? They tell us that it is something which makes them stronger; that they draw virtue from it. We have all read about such things, but these two men speak from their own experience.
Fifteen years ago, in a conversation which I shall never forget, the great explorer Stanley told me, to my amazement, that in Africa, whenever he was perplexed, in torment, or in peril, he opened his Bible and found guidance there. ‘Oh, yes,’ I said to myself at the time, ‘he is an Anglo-Saxon.’ Nevertheless, the difference in nationality does not explain everything. Today we see our fellow countrymen, our neighbors, the children of our flesh, placed in circumstances that stir the depths of their being, feeling, and reasoning as they stirred that Englishman. My friend Captain Hassler, older than any of these boys and a stranger to their faith, looked about him and wrote, ‘One cannot close one’s eyes to the fact that many men are sustained by the idea of a superior being to whose care they entrust themselves.’
Noble is this jungamus dextras of these loyal soldiers; and beneficent this serene submission of believer and unbeliever alike to the great Fact; but my wonder goes far beyond this. The spirit of religion pervades this whole younger generation. They are not all equally sustained by it; certainly they are not all of the same creed, but history, in speaking of them, will use the words of Léo Latil: ‘In this war the spiritual element dominates all.’
Whence do they come, these soldierboys sans peur et sans reproche? The Judge’s daughter in Scripture said, ‘ We ask of you a brief respite to bewail our youth.’ They crave not a single tear. What luminous presence, what eyes full of calm, what sublime thoughts, rising without turmoil to the surface of their beings! Are these really our young brothers? Twice have they been born: first out of the soil of France, from an old race whose sons are noble, one and all; and again out of the nation’s peril. A French mother (and French mothers are the tenderest, the most timid in the world) said to her son, ‘I should urge you on with my own voice, if I could see you rushing to meet the enemy.’ These boys are heirs to the ancient treasure: countless virtues slumbered within them, and to-day they are all awake. As we watch them act and think, we are present at the resurrection of these forces that were slumbering. Tracts of the French soul which had long lain fallow in us are beginning to be fruitful once again; and these young men have won inner riches which we, their elders, had lost. Foregoing nothing of that which was our treasure (for their positive aptitudes, their sense of surface realities, are at least as great as ours), they leave no darkness in the more mysterious parts of their beings; they have rediscovered the secret of the Ages of Enthusiasm. By this token they are more complete natures than we, and come nearer to fulfilling the type of man made perfect.
Acceptance of sacrifice, the consciousness of a great Presence at one’s side—we come across these again and again. If we need a picture to symbolize them, none more true to life can be found than that evoked by a sentence which Bernard-Claudius Lavergne, the thirteenth child of the glazier Claudius Lavergne, wrote home to his family: ‘To-night we leave for the trenches. To-night I shall be watching over you, rifle in hand. You know who is watching over me.’
What an epitome! What a thought beyond price! O young men of France, worthier far than we!
They shall live on; but even were they dead, our country shall be built anew with their souls, as with living stones.