The Diary of a Coward

[These records, which came to light after the death of a Dutch volunteer in the French service, were never intended to see the light of day. The name of the author is, therefore, withheld; but the Atlantic has reason to believe the documents to be genuine. The translation has been made for the Atlantic from the original Dutch. — THE EDITORS.]

PARIS, August 14, 1914.
DOES everyone experience such enormous difficulty in reaching a decision in matters of importance, or is this peculiarity limited to inferior people like myself? I know well enough how readily one assumes an air of serene certainty toward one’s friends and acquaintances, a tone of ‘Of course I will do this or that’; and how one then does this or that because one has said so. I am not concerned with such external, apparent certainty, however, but rather with inner certainty, or, better still, with lack of certainty. And I at least have always had this paralyzing hesitancy, whenever in my life I have stood before an important choice.
And so it is now. I cannot order my thoughts. Like a troop of madmen they run to and fro, and into one another. What seems irrefutably right at one moment, appears as stupid and overzealous the next. I shall, therefore, at least temporarily, keep a record, in the hope that after some time I may be able to discover the position toward which I seem to tend. For, above everything else, I want to act in accordance with my inner self, provided such a thing reveals its existence.
Since the declaration of war I have felt nervously excited. Frequently I have felt a vague fear; but I have also been full of an irritating, unwholesome curiosity. It is going to be an entirely new war — a struggle with flying machines, airships, submarines (not to mention the improved guns that must differ enormously from the cannon of 1870). How can any one have dared to begin such a war?
Paris feels secure in its great confidence in the French army, a confidence which to me seems entirely justified. There is also a quite general contempt, not for the German soldier, but for German tactics and for the German officer. Is this also justified? Who knows? But in a month or two, we shall know.
In connection with the events of the last two weeks, I am constantly asking myself, What am I to do?
The answer to the question is fraught with no importance for France; for me personally it is of the utmost consequence. Shall I enlist as a volunteer or shall I stay at home? For a fortnight now I have been struggling with this question; and I have not reached a decision. To ask advice is not possible in this case. For whom could I ask? I have acquaintances, of course; but friends? One perhaps, who lives in the Dutch East Indies. I became estranged from my relatives long ago. Therefore I shall have to stand entirely by myself.
It is nearly five years now since Jeanne died, and it will soon be four and a half years since I moved into bachelor’s quarters. Mine has been an uneventful existence, with but little variety. It is true, I see my colleagues, and I have other acquaintances whom I meet in the evening in the Café de la Paix on the Boulevard du Temple. But the greater part of my leisure is spent in my room, reading, working a little, doing a great many trifles. The

loneliness of this existence does not oppress me very much; for a long time I have been living as in a dream — vegetating. I have performed the duties of my profession without much enthusiasm, and without much aversion. But now I have suddenly been shocked out of my dull equilibrium.
When I look down into the street from my window, I notice an unaccustomed stir. A confused noise of muttering voices rises up to me — now and then shouts break through. It is clear to me that in these days all men in France stand shoulder to shoulder: one in thought, one in hope, one in determination. But I remain on the outside! Again and again the question arises: Shall I join? Or shall I stay out, being a foreigner? It is possible — and, after all, is it not most natural?
I am not such a furious hater of everything German as my colleagues, Pichaud and Marcel, who look upon the sales Boches as a lot of intriguers and scoundrels. Although I can see a lack of harmony in their civilization, and although many of their prominent people impress me as petty tyrants and upstarts, as being often too submissive and too slavish, still I must recognize that there are, even among the Germans, many enterprising, able, and energetic people; and ‘good’ men as well.
But notwithstanding all these impartial intellectual reflections, I feel indignation over the invasion of Belgium. That was an infamous act. How can they even attempt to justify such burglary? Yet they surely will. In the eyes of a German, every other German, and, above all, the German government, is always right.
The most divergent feelings have forced themselves upon me these last days. Sometimes I experience agreeable excitement when I foresee the stupendous events that are about to take place near me, under my eyes; and when I think that I shall be one of the few privileged to feel the exaltations of the tremendous experience, without being myself exposed to danger.
Even after I had examined this by no means noble sentiment more closely and when I had understood its origin, the pleasant sparkling feeling did not pass away. The baseness of my character was revealed all too clearly!
And yet I cannot bring myself to the decision to remain at a safe distance from danger. I hesitate and I continue to hesitate. My acquaintances are curious to know what I am going to do.
‘Will you not have to enlist?’ I am asked.
’I am not a Frenchman,’ is my reply. ‘I come from Holland.’ Most of them look at me then, not with much kindness; they shrug their shoulders and mutter something like, ‘Cela n’empêche pas—’
My landlady, Madame Cabuchon, with whom I have rarely conversed more than once a month, inquired yesterday whether or not I was going to leave. She has her troubles, the poor woman. Three of her lodgers have already left — perhaps for good! I replied that I could not tell for certain, and that I would inform her as soon as I had decided what to do.
Practically all my younger acquaintances, and those of my own age as well, are serving. I cannot delude myself by pretending that I would not be accepted. I am thirty-six years old, without any disability so far as I am aware, and in fairly good health. I have never served in the army. It is true that I was a faithful member of the Volunteer Corps during my student days in Utrecht. That does not mean very much; but it helps a little. And I am inclined to think that I am not below the majority of the volunteers in fitness. But I do not have to go, and when arguing calmly, it seems as if I ought not to.
Yet I cannot be entirely satisfied with this conclusion. I owe much to France. With Jeanne I have passed here my happiest — at any rate, my best years. And now that my life no longer has much value, why should I spare it? And then I ask again: is it not quixotic to join the fight when one can stay out of it? At any rate, before I decide I must consider the pros and the cons very carefully.

PARIS, August 16, 1914.
I have got no further, and I foresee that I shall not get any further. I have gazed at Jeanne’s portrait on my desk and tried to convince myself that she is still alive and can tell me what to do. — In what superstitions does one seek refuge! Of course, it was of no use. I know it too well: I should be able to hear her answer only if I could give it myself. Now I am thinking again how good it would be if only Fred were here, so that I could consult him. But Fred is in the East Indies. If I write him now, months will be gone before I get his reply.
The stir and excitement in the city are increasing. It makes me restless. The bulletins in front of which people are crowding, the incessant hawking of newspapers and extras, the shouting, the singing, the troops which march past with their bands and the rattling of drums, the artillery with the guns thundering over the pavement, the splendid dragoons wildly applauded — all this causes fresh excitement each time, putting to flight my wise arguments. Then I get lost in romantic imaginings about the war, and I want to be in it. But scarcely half an hour later my enthusiasm has disappeared and the war stands out as something so horrible, so beastly, that I am astounded at all these soldiers who go by smiling and singing, joking and shouting bons mots to the bystanders. They seem to be satisfied and happy. Do they not feel the shuddering horror of it all? Have they a different view of life? Or perhaps a sort of courage different from that of people like myself?

PARIS, August 19, 1914.
I have been thinking for days now, and for nights as well. How I have lain awake, for hours and hours! And all this reflecting is useless. It does not bring me one step further, and I wish that some one else could decide for me. The only thing that I am sure of is this: if I do go, I shall bitterly reproach myself afterwards. I see myself at the front, fuming: stupid fool, it was not necessary! And if I do not go, I shall be carrying about with me the oppressive certainty of being a coward.
I never considered myself very important, neither in my student days, nor later. And, frankly, I have never understood very well why Jeanne cared so much for me. I know that I am a mediocrity in nearly everything. But that I am so far below the average in personal courage as now appears to be the case — that, is a sad revelation.

PARIS, August 20, 1914.
I have thought of going back to Holland and enlisting there. The Dutch army has been mobilized, there is fear of the country’s being drawn into the war. But in returning to Holland I run the risk of becoming involved in petty difficulties. Besides, I am no longer a Hollander. For Jeanne’s sake, too, it were better if I did not go back. It is a pity in a way. The memories of my youth draw me thither. Sometimes I dream of the old days, wandering through B. and talking with people I used to know twenty-five and thirty years ago, when I was a child. Most of them must be dead now. And then I walk through the streets of Utrecht, a student. And when I wake from such dreams, I feel very tenderly toward Holland. I am homesick. Fortunately this feeling never lasts very long. I know only too well how much better these fantastic memories are than reality used to be; and how disappointed I should be if I were once more to see the old things.

PARIS, August 23, 1914
To-day a boy in school said to me, ‘Do you not have to serve, sir?’
‘Don’t you know that I am a Hollander?’
‘But the Foreign Legion?’
I did not reply, but I started the work of the day. No, the Foreign Legion does not attract me. I know that there are countrymen of mine there; also Poles, Swiss, Greeks, Swedes, Roumanians, South Americans — a mixed lot. These people talk a dozen different languages. Between some of them there is an instinctive antipathy. I have heard some fine stories about that! Besides, I fear that the officers cannot have much faith in their men.

PARIS, August 28, 1914.
I do not get any further. Reports and newspaper accounts sometimes make me wish that I were there! To take part, to have romantic adventures, to see for myself, to act! But at bottom, there is the certain knowledge: the farther from it, the better.
The Germans appear to be much stronger than we anticipated. They are advancing in Belgium, and in France and in Russia. I fear that things will go wrong. And then? And then?

PARIS, August 31, 1914.
How small and mean everything in me is! It is regrettable that cowardice and love of ease bind me to this empty existence. If only I had some one to live for! While hundreds of thousands who love, who are of use and who are needed, offer their lives without questioning, I continue to vegetate, wasting my days in an unmanly hesitation, a smarting, fruitless worry.

PARIS, September 2, 1914.
The knot has been cut. Or rather — it will be cut for me. I will not join the Foreign Legion. But I have asked for my naturalization papers. If I am allowed to become a Frenchman, then I must serve. If not, the matter is settled, and I shall have done what I could. At last some decision is on the way — which turn I am hoping for, I do not myself know.

V——, November 15, 1914.
For four weeks now I have been here in V——, where we are being trained, nearly a thousand of us.
When after weeks of waiting the decision finally came, I at first intended not to continue these notes. But the question whether I was really entirely devoid of courage continued to occupy me. In a month or two, when I shall know, I may find it not uninteresting to have a picture of what I felt and thought during these days of hesitation. For this reason I shall continue to write down what is going on within me as honestly as I can.
Before the reply to my request came, I waited for days and days. I had periods of the greatest anxiety. Then there were hours of indifference. Sometimes I reproached myself for not having been strong enough to make my own decision in one way or another, but soon it appeared again to be best to allow the decision to be made for me. Throughout the period my mood was depressed; I had no desire to make any notes in this diary. When the news finally came, I had at first a feeling of relief. The enervating uncertainty was past, and the feeling that I had done my duty, or rather that I was going to do it, was a pleasant one. At just about that time the news of the victory of the Marne came. What a glorious clearing! I immediately informed my principal, my colleagues, my landlady, and my acquaintances, of my intention to take service. They did not receive the announcement as anything so very remarkable, and their indifference caused me some disappointment, even though I could fully understand their attitude.
In the mean time my self-satisfaction began to disintegrate. I remember vividly how some mornings I awoke with the oppressive feeling that something horrible was about to enter into my existence. And then at once I knew it, and I felt a pang in my breast. I should have to take part in the fighting. There was no escape.
The self-confidence would return somewhat after rising, and especially after going out. But a shifting fear remained lurking in my heart, disappearing and again returning, a fear which I could sometimes suppress but never drive out. Early in the morning in bed that stealthy feeling of an approaching calamity was strongest.
After a few days I seemed to grow accustomed to the new7 condition. However, when I received the call to go to V-and report there, it came back very strongly. I cursed my stupidity. I read again what I had written in this diary in August, and it suddenly made surer the conviction that I was a genuine coward. It seemed to be proved, not only by my long hesitation, but equally by my half-hearted, quasi-courageous resolve to ask for naturalization papers. I realized that I w as as much afraid of joining as of being looked upon as a coward. It wras evident that I lacked even the small amount of firmness necessary to act differently from the great mass! And consequently I should now have to go with the rest on the leaking ship.
Doubtless it was again the lack of courage to act differently from others which made things go fairly well in V—, among so many others sharing the same fate. In this group of people willing, thinking, and feeling all the same way, I began very quickly to feel at home and safe. During the daytime at least; the first nights in V——were frightful: thirty-six of us in one room. I could not sleep; all night long I heard heavy breathing, snoring, whispering, muttering, cursing. Eating together I did not mind, working together still less. But sleeping! Dead tired, with a headache, and irritable from over-fatigue, I stretched myself out upon my straw’ sack. Sleep would not come. I did not have a good bed; I was too cold; snoring, snorting, groaning kept me awake. I was restless, turned from one side to the other, and made myself miserable by all sorts of horrible imaginings. I was thinking continually of what the future would bring. I hoped that it might be painless death, sudden death.
Now I am entirely accustomed to my surroundings.

V——, November 17, 1914.
I met a former pupil, Étienne S. He has changed a great deal during the five years since I saw him last and I did not recognize him. But he did recognize me.
‘You here, sir?’
‘Why not?’
Quite involuntarily, I assumed the tone of the self-assured man who knows exactly why he acts thus and so.
We are making good progress with our training. But most of the men are muttering that it should go faster. It is taking too long to please them. Are they honest about this? I believe they are, most of them, at least. There are of course some who merely repeat what they hear others say. Yesterday I caught myself saying, ‘It is getting time for us to have a turn at things.’ I was not conscious at the moment of having bragged.
The crowds are cheering us. It brings to my mind the first days of August in Paris. How remote the marching troops seemed then! I did not understand how they could go so cheerfully to meet the danger. They all seemed heroes. And I still think that these soldiers were quite different from what I am now.
Last week, on our return from target practice, we passed a group of young women and girls who threw flowers at us, shyly at first, and with serious faces, but then with laughter and jokes and shouting. I caught one, a brownish yellow chrysanthemum. I was as happy with it as a boy. And at the same time I felt ashamed.

V——, November 20, 1914.
I am fairly well adjusted to my present life. Not merely externally, — that I was from the beginning, — but also spiritually. This war is a terrible thing; but for us at least it is a necessity. I am fully convinced that, unless we triumph over them, the Germans will forever remain a threatening danger for us. Germany does not recognize in other states the same rights that she claims for herself. She wants to be in supreme control. If this is allowed, Holland will be one of the first victims: first a vassal state, then a part of the Empire!
I am reconciled to the idea that I may fall. When I consider how many of my comrades have others dependent upon them, my life appears without value. How exaggerated an importance one attaches to one’s life in times of peace! In this respect at least war teaches a valuable lesson.

V——, December 28, 1914.
The time has finally come. We shall get seven days’ leave to-morrow and then we shall be distributed among active units.

To F. van B., Esq., President of the Rural Council at B——, Java.

PARIS, January 2, 1915.
DEAR F——,
You will be surprised when you receive these papers: a diary, or something of that nature, at least, of the undersigned. It is much easier to reveal our most intimate feelings to people who are far from us and whom there is not the slightest chance of meeting again, than to others. As you will notice, I am disclosing in these papers what one usually keeps hidden very carefully. But if only you will keep it to yourself, read what I have written. Do not expect anything extraordinary, anything exciting or exalting. I send this package chiefly because I want it kept safely. In a few days I shall leave for the front and there I should run the risk of having these papers fall into the hands of people whom they do not concern. Besides, I do not want to carry unnecessary luggage. Should I come out alive, I should like to get the papers back, to read them again after the war, to gain a fuller knowledge of myself, you know! If I should feel any desire to continue my diary after I get in the trenches, I shall do it in the form of letters to you. Put them with what I am sending you now. You will not receive any war correspondence from me — more than enough of that is to be found in the newspapers and in the periodicals. What I have written, and what I may still write, has to do with introspection only. My chief problem is to find out how I shall behave in the face of danger. It will be far from fine — I fear. But I am interested in the truth, the bare truth, be it ever so ugly. I am not going to embellish matters therefore. Toward others, you will be silent, will you not? At least, as long as I live! After I am dead tear the stuff up or do with it as you like.

S——, January 22, 1915.
DEAR F——,
We are still a few hours’ journey behind the front.
Taking it all in all, I am not dissatisfied. As a rule, I feel calm. Now and then a faint feeling arises vaguely. But in the course of ordinary conversation it readily disappears. At times, I even get flickerings of a desire to fight. Not the real thing, however, I presume; more in the nature of artistic imagination. The knowledge that I am carrying practically no responsibility contributes more than anything else to creating a mood of quiet resignation. I am a soldier and I have to obey. That is all.
Rather a mean point of view, this, you will say. True, but under the circumstances it appears to me the only proper one. I have not the remotest approach to an opinion as to what ought to be done. Neither has any one else in my vicinity. But we have faith in our generals. We do not worry and we wait — others think, judge, and decide for us. Also, habit helps to make our lives bearable. Last, but not least, there is the natural inclination to seek accord with surroundings that are harmonious. Even those who hesitate are influenced by the spirit of unity of the whole. This does not mean that there are never any differences of opinion. One hears discussions and debates on all sides. But in nearly all cases these are based upon playing with words, or attaching different meanings to the same expression. As to the abstract, wordless thought, we are nearly always in accord.

S——, January 24, 1915.
In the distance we hear continually the rumble and the dull thud of heavy gunfire. Each time I feel a strange respect and admiration, mingled with fear, for the men in the first line of trenches.
Sometimes we meet them when they are relieved. Then they look like ordinary people, who do not see anything unusual in what they are doing. When we talk to them, it seems that we also look upon it as the ordinary thing; that we are only a little curious. But as far as I am concerned, I know that I feel it all very differently.

S——, January 29, 1915.
We are relatively safe here. Recently a few grenades got lost in our vicinity. Yesterday a German flyer was overhead, dropping bombs near enough to be troublesome. But as for the real, big danger I do not know what it Before long our turn for the trenches will come. Most of the fellows are wishing for the time to come. At least, that is what they say. I am fearing it. I am in earnest when I say to myself, that my life is of little value, even to myself. Yet I fear the trenches.

means.

S——, January 30, 1915.
I had to stop yesterday. In front of us a fight was developing; the order to move forward was expected at any moment. We were ordered to fall in, were allowed to sit or to lie down, and then we had to wait for five endless hours.
The German fire seemed to be coming nearer. The incessant explosions made us excited and nervous. We were impatient to be allowed to participate in some way or other. But we had to wait, wait endlessly. The idleness irritated me to such an extent that I feared I was going mad. I wanted to get shot, to get relief from this enervating suspense and from my bursting headache. After some time, a reaction set in. I became indifferent, only half conscious. It is all over now, thank God!
Yesterday evening transports of wounded soldiers came past us repeatedly. Hearing the wailing and the groaning, seeing all the bloodiness, made me sick. I had better not write about this. While in the midst of the danger I had not been afraid; then, however, the fear of the front suddenly overtook me again. I violently reproached myself for having been so stupid as to enlist. There I was in the midst of this insane murder! And by my own free will!

Free will? At least, that is what we call it.

D——, February 21, 1915.
DEAR F——,
And now we are at the front. I have already spent more than two weeks in the trenches. Yesterday we were given eight days’ leave. I went with a comrade whose parents live here in D— The dear boy has become very much attached to me. He believes that I am a strong support for him! Must I weep at this, or laugh? Gaston has told me in great confidence that he gets occasional attacks of cowardice. And he asked me whether I did not despise him. He is terribly afraid that the fellows will notice it, but he did not mind confiding in me. Why in me? He says it is because he admires my imperturbable calmness so much. What could I reply? It seemed best not to tell him how things stood with me. Apart from the difficulties such a confession would cause me, I concluded that it would also be better for him to believe in my courage.
A little while ago I suddenly remembered the awe and admiration with which, in Paris and in V——, and even after that, I thought of the troops who were fighting in the trenches. Now I am there myself. And so I myself have probably become a hero in the eyes of others.

A hero! But there are real heroes and make-believe heroes; and they are not always easily distinguishable. I do not hide from myself that I belong to the make-believes. And yet, it is remarkable that I did not find the second week at the front as terrible as the first. It is not as bad there as it seems. When once you get accustomed to the idea that you may be dead in a day, or in an hour, or in a minute, and when you are clear as to your future, your mood is relieved from constant depression. Involuntarily you become kind and helpful to those about you, you do not get vexed over trifles, you are ready to make all sorts of sacrifices. Of course, if, in the midst of such a condition, a grenade suddenly drops into your trench, if you see three or four of your comrades getting killed, your misery returns, no matter how good an outward appearance you may keep up. At least, for a while. But then again the thought comes that getting wounded means rest and safety, and good care. And death? that is still less terrible. One boasts of reaching one’s destination along the shortest road! Is not death every one’s final destination?

S——, March 1, 1915.
DEAR F——,
We are back in the trenches. It was a little strange at first, but we soon got readjusted. It makes a big difference whether one is in the front line or in the second or third. In the first, one is with few companions. And although one lies behind broad wire entanglements, one has to keep a steady watch. For there are openings in these entanglements, through which we pass to make an attack.

In the other lines it is safer — and also pleasanter. We crowd together, usually in threes or fours. In the hiding-places there is the loudest talking, of course. The debate usually runs on the question as to how it will be after the war. How strange it seems to one sitting here, to imagine peace, and to think of sleeping on a bed night after night — on a real bed, in a room all to one’s self! And of breakfast with a newspaper by your side! Or of a walk in the Bois de Boulogne! And of hearing nicely dressed boys and girls sing and play in the streets! And of being able to wash as often as you like, and to feel the freshness of clean linen on your body!
Of course there are other wishes and luxuries.
In the end every one is lost in his dreams. And then the thought comes sometimes: formerly, when we had the enjoyment of all these things, it seemed quite common, they made no one particularly happy. How long will it take after we get them back before we shall take them again as a matter of course? There is so little in life that has real enduring value. One looks for it here, another there; no one finds it. Who knows whether there are not some among us who, after many years, will think back to this time with a sense of regret and desire, who will feel that this was their most beautiful year, a time when they lived most fully and genuinely?

March 3, 1915.
It is peculiar that one can get so accustomed to danger.
I have tried to account for it, and it appears to be like this: at first our thoughts are almost incessantly occupied with the frightful things that are about to happen. Then moments come — only a single one at first — in which our thoughts wander away, involuntarily, and dwell on something else. Suddenly fear returns. But the periods of repose become more frequent and of longer duration. And when they are disturbed by fear, the painful shock becomes gradually less violent. Neither does fear itself ache so hard. And then the time approaches when one is conscious of fear only on occasions when there is a violent fire, or when men fall. That is my present condition. There seems to be a further stage in which one is rid of fear for good. So far I shall not get.

O——, March 20, 1915.
DEAR F——,
I am writing from the hospital. A fortnight ago I was wounded in the right hip by a grenade splinter. It was not very serious, only a flesh wound. I suddenly felt a shock; a feeling of heaviness came over me, rather than one of pain. At first I did not understand it and wanted to get up; but I fell over. I wanted to ask something, but before I could do that I became unconscious. When I regained consciousness, I was in the ambulance.
The first treatment of the wound was painful and took a long time. But at last I could be moved to the hospital. Here one can manage very well. Some of the physicians and nurses are surprised that most of the wounded are in such a tranquilly happy, almost blissful mood. But one lies in bed so quietly, one is cared for with so much tenderness, and above all, one feels so gloriously safe!
If the sister who sits near my bed, and who forbids me to continue writing, could read this, she would surely lose some of her admiration for le brave Hollandais !

March 31, 1915.
My wound has healed and before long I shall return to the front. I am urging to be allowed to go. Not from a desire to fight — indeed not! Simply from a common everyday feeling of duty. I have no right any longer to occupy this place, to which some one else has greater claim. And why postpone misery which is inevitable? If it has to be, then let it be at once.
Without having given any occasion for it, I am being looked upon as a hero here, A friend of Gaston’s is a distant cousin of one of the nurses. Gaston inquired after me, and apparently used that occasion to do a good deal of boasting. At any rate, some greatly embellished stories of my sang-froid have been going the rounds here. Without having to lie, I could say that all this was invented, or at least highly exaggerated. The consequence was that I was looked upon, not only as a hero, but as a giant of modesty as well. It is very annoying. However, to be honest, I must confess that now and then this undeserved praise gives me a feeling of satisfaction; I have always known that I was weak-minded.
A few times I was on the point of saying, ‘Do believe me, it was not courage which made me become a soldier, neither was it courage which made me do my duty. (After all, what is it that I have done?) And it is not courage which causes me to urge my departure. Know that I would much rather remain in this hospital where I am so well cared for and where I am so safe.’
But I did not say anything. Because — so I tell myself — I know only too well that I should not succeed in making these people understand my base thoughtsand my low sentiments. They would merely repeat their talk of‘modesty.’

H——, April 8, 1915.
DEAR F——,
I am back with my old company — a piece of good luck. And what is more, I have been promoted to a corporalship. No small thing, eh? Just the same, it made me happy. I was touched by the friendly spirit of the fellows. Gaston shook my hand at least six times, muttering, ‘Ah, mon vieux, mon vieux, how I have missed you!’ This does one good. And I had better not get lost in the question as to how much of all this attachment I deserve.

H——, April 12, 1915.
A few days after my return to the troop we went back to the firing line. Yesterday I was in the second line of trenches. The Germans began an attack that was meant in earnest. There was incessant thundering of cannon. We had to withdraw to our hidingplaces and wait — for hours and hours. The only relief we had wras caused by a sudden avalanche of sand. A part of the trench appeared to have caved in. After the first scare, there came a feeling of relief and a certain satisfaction. At least we could do something now, digging ourselves out of the loose earth and repairing the damage with our spades. Then, again, it was waiting. A few times I clambered up to look through a periscope which a sergeant loaned me. Nothing to be discovered — nothing but smoke. Apparently our officers did not think that our turn would come very soon. I am glad of it, I thought. I could not see anything attractive in a hand-to-hand fight. I am not afraid of a gun wound, but when I think of getting a bayonet thrust, I shudder.
It cannot be helped. We have to take whatever comes along.

April 18, 1915.
Nothing in particular happened on the day on which the above was written. But the next day—! Not even now, five days later, have I regained my equilibrium. Shall I be proud of my conduct later on? Or shall I be ashamed of it? When I am with others, I can be cheerful. When I am alone or when I lie awake at night, I feel veryuncertain. But could I have acted differently under the circumstances?

In the early morning of the 13th the cannonading was resumed, and again we had hours of exhausting expectation. Toward noon we noticed that an unusual event was coming. The captain shouted something. I could not understand a word. Gaston understood: the wire entanglements in front of the first line of trenches had been shot to pieces. We had to hold ourselves ready. There was incessant telephoning.

‘They are coming!’ some one yelled.

I could not restrain myself any longer and looked over the edge of the trench.

They were coming indeed; I saw them. In broad, irregular rows they were running toward us. Straight toward me, it seemed. And behind them, there came others, and still others, ever more. The German guns were silent now. And then suddenly ours began to roar with redoubled vigor.

Holes, narrow clefts, and fissures were torn in the massive gray billows that came rolling toward us.

‘Not a single one will get through!' I heard some one shout.

But behind the first wave came a second one, and a third one behind that. I saw them approach, losing in vigor, yet remaining strong.

We were ready. In that moment I felt no fear! Like the others, I was burning to fly out of the trenches. Suddenly a strange silence came, and then the call: ‘Attaquez! Attaquez!'

We clambered up, jumped over the edge of the trench, and ran forward. In front, to the left, to the right, everywhere there were French soldiers, storming forward.

I sawr the Germans coming nearer, in their dirty gray uniforms, in rows, in heaps, and in smaller groups, some even singly. I saw the glistening and flickering of their bayonets, I heard them yell and shout. My heart thumped so hard that I had difficulty in breathing. Around me our men were shouting loudly. I was shouting too, and felt relieved when I heard my own voice, however indistinctly. Now and then a rifle-shot could be heard. We were running fast. ‘ En avant! En avant!

Suddenly I became aware of a desire to hold back a little, and thereby to postpone, if only for a single second, the terrible moment of the clash. I happened to be pushed by a comrade behind me and I flew forward again.

At last we had reached the Germans. Six steps in front of me I saw Gaston bayoneting an officer. Not a second later the poor chap fell himself — hit by a rifle-shot, as I learned later.

Suddenly a big German stood before me, a deathly pallor on his face, his mouth drawn, his eyes crazed with fear. His terror gave me courage and a feeling of superiority. I jumped on him. He tried to defend himself, but with all my strength, I plunged my bayonet into his body. ‘ Bravo Caporal!’ I heard some one call. While with the greatest difficulty I pulled my gun out — it was being sucked into the wound, oh, horror! — scores of my comrades ran past. I tried to catch up with them, stumbled over a body, and fell, with my head to the ground. But immediately I got up again and ran forward, more slowly however; my legs felt weak and powerless. I saw one of our men struggling with an enemy, stopped for a moment, and drove my bayonet into his body. Forward again! I had no further encounters. The attack had been repulsed. The German guns began thundering again; we had to return to our trenches.

I took the death of Gaston (and of many others) more calmly than I had feared. This is not so surprising after all. Death may strike any one of us, at any moment. We have accepted that chance. But if that is our attitude toward ourselves, why should we not have it toward our friends?

But it still seems strange to me that I cannot reach a definite judgment on my action in this last light. Certain it is that the circumstances absolutely required my doing what I did, even leaving entirely out of consideration the fact that to every one his own life is dearer than that of a stranger, I cannot hesitate in the choice between a French soldier and a German soldier. But it is equally certain that killing men runs counter to my nature and is absolutely irreconcilable with ideas which I had always accepted without question. Efforts to remove the contradiction between these thoughts must inevitably fail. It is in this way that I seek to explain the fact that at one moment I am cheerful, and sing with the rest—that I am invariably rejoicing over my good luck in the last fight, not merely having escaped without even the slightest scratch myself, but having had besides the good fortune of killing two Germans; while the next moment I sit worrying silently, asking myself, ‘How is it possible that you are taking part in this frightful war — as a volunteer?’

[This was the last letter of Jan R—— received by Mr. van B—emdash;. A letter sent by the latter in March was returned to the sender with the notice on the envelope: ‘Fallen at Souchez.’ — THE EDITORS.]