Letters of a Soldier
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Description: Real letters written by a French Soldier during the First World War. Touching letters written to his mother and other loved ones sharing his thoughts, feelings and fears from August 14, 1914 to his disappearance on April 6, 1915.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, 2006 ebook
eBookwise Release Date: November 2006
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [169 KB]
Reading time: 108-152 min.
I have been asked to write an Introduction to these letters; and I do so, in spite of the fact that M. Chevrillon has already written one, because they are stranger to me, an Englishman, than they could be to him a Frenchman; and it seems worth while to warn other English readers of this strangeness. But I would warn them of it only by way of a recommendation. We all hope that after the war there will be a growing intimacy between France and England, that the two countries will be closer to each other than any two countries have ever been before. But if this is to happen we must not be content with admiring each other.
Mere admiration will die away; indeed, some part of our present admiration of the French has come from our failure to understand them.
There is a surprise in it which they cannot think flattering, and which ought never to have been. Perhaps they also have been surprised by us; for it is certain that we have not known each other, and have been content with those loose general opinions about each other which are the common result of ignorance and indifference.
What we need then is understanding; and these letters will help us to it. They are, as we should have said before the war, very French, that is to say, very unlike what an Englishman would write to his mother, or indeed to any one. Many Englishmen, if they could have read them before the war, would have thought them almost unmanly; yet the writer distinguished himself even in the French army. But perhaps unmanly is too strong a word to be put in the mouth even of an imaginary and stupid Englishman. No one, however stupid, could possibly have supposed that the writer was a coward; but it might have been thought that he was utterly unfitted for war. So the Germans thought that the whole French nation, and indeed every nation but themselves, was unfitted for war, because they alone willed it, and rejoiced in the thought of it. And certainly the French had a greater abhorrence of war even than ourselves; how great one can see in these letters. The writer of them never for a moment tries or pretends to take any pleasure in war. His chief aim in writing is to forget it, to speak of the consolations which he can still draw from the memories of his past peaceful life, and from the peace of the sky and the earth, where it is still unravaged. He is, or was, a painter (one cannot say which, for he is missing), and the moment he has time to write, he thinks of his art again. It would hardly be possible for any Englishman to ignore the war so resolutely, to refuse any kind of consent to it; or, if an Englishman were capable of such refusal, he would probably be a conscientious objector. We must romanticise things to some extent if we are to endure them; we must at least make jokes about them; and that is where the French fail to understand us, like the Germans. If a thing is bad to a Frenchman, it is altogether bad; and he will have no dealings with it. He may have to endure it; but he endures gravely and tensely with a sad Latin dignity, and so it is that this Frenchman endures the war from first to last. For that reason the Germans, after their failure on the Marne, counted on the nervous exhaustion of the French. It was a favourite phrase with them--one of those formulŠ founded on knowledge without understanding which so often mislead them.--Their formula for us was that we cared for nothing but football and marmalade.__But reading these letters one can understand how they were deceived. The writer of them seems to be always enduring tensely. It is part of his French sincerity never to accept any false consolation. He will not try to believe what he knows to be false, even so that he may endure for the sake of France. Yet he does endure, and all France endures, in a state of mind that would mean weakness in us and utter collapse in the Germans. The war is to him like an incessant noise that he tries to forget while he is writing. He does not write as a matter of duty, and so that his mother may know that he is still living; rather he writes to her so that he may ease a little his desire to talk to her. We are used to French sentiment about the mother; it is a commonplace of French eloquence, and we have often smiled at it as mere sentimental platitude; but in these letters we see a son's love for his mother no longer insisted upon or dressed up in rhetoric, but naked and unconscious, a habit of the mind, a need of the soul, a support even to the weakness of the flesh. Such affection with us is apt to be, if not shamefaced, at least a little off-hand. Often it exists, and is strong; but it is seldom so constant an element in all joy and sorrow. The most loving of English sons would not often rather talk to his mother than to any one else; but one knows that this Frenchman would rather talk to his mother than to any one else, and that he can talk to her more intimately than to any woman or man. One can see that he has had the long habit of talking to her thus, so that now he does it easily and without restraint. He tells her the deepest thoughts of his mind, knowing that she will understand them better than any one else. That foreboding which the mother felt about her baby in Morris's poem has never come true about him:
"Lo, here thy body beginning, O son, and thy soul and thy life,
But how will it be if thou livest and enterest into the strife,
And in love we dwell together when the man is grown in thee,
When thy sweet speech I shall hearken, and yet 'twixt thee and me
Shall rise that wall of distance that round each one doth grow,
And maketh it hard and bitter each other's thought to know?'
This son has lived and entered into the strife indeed; but the wall of distance has not grown round him; and, as we read these letters, we think that no French mother would fear the natural estrangement which that English mother in the poem fears. The foreboding itself seems to belong to a barbaric society in which there is a more animal division of the sexes, in which the male fears to become effeminate if he does not insist upon his masculinity even to his mother. But this Frenchman has left barbarism so far behind that he is not afraid of effeminacy; nor does he need to remind himself that he is a male. There is a philosophy to which this forgetfulness of masculinity is decadence. According to that philosophy, man must remember always that he is an animal, a proud fighting animal like a bull or a cock; and the proudest of all fighting animals, to be admired at a distance by all women unless he condescends to desire them, is the officer. No one could be further from such a philosophy than this Frenchman; he is so far from it that he does not seem even to be aware of its existence. He hardly mentions the Germans and never expresses anger against them. The worst he says of them almost makes one smile at its na´ve gentleness. 'Unfortunately, contact with the German race has for ever spoilt my opinion of those people.' They are to him merely a nation that does not know how to behave. He reminds one of Talleyrand, who said of Napoleon after one of his rages: 'What a pity that so great a man should have been so badly brought up.' But there was malice in that understatement of Talleyrand's; and there is none in the understatement of this Frenchman. He has no desire for revenge; his only wish is that his duty were done and that he could return home to his art and his mother. To the philosophy I have spoken of that would seem a pitiable state of mind. No one could be less like a Germanic hero than this French artist; and yet the Germans were in error when they counted on an easy victory over him and his like, when they made sure that a conscious barbarism must prevail over an unconscious civilization.
These letters reveal to us a new type of soldier, a new type of hero, almost a new type of man; one who can be brave without any animal consolations, who can endure without any romantic illusions, and, what is more, one who can have faith without any formal revelation. For there is nothing in the letters more interesting than the religion constantly expressed or implied in them. The writer is not a Catholic. Catholic fervour on its figurative side, he says, will always leave him cold. He finds the fervour of Verlaine almost gross. He seems afraid to give any artistic expression to his own faith, lest he should falsify it by over_expression, lest it should seem to be more accomplished than it is.
He will not even try to take delight in it; he is almost fanatically an intellectual ascetic; and yet again and again he affirms a faith which he will hardly consent to specify by uttering the name of God. He is shy about it, as if it might be refuted if it were expressed in any dogmatic terms. So many victories seem to have been won over faith in the modern world that his will not throw down any challenge. If it is to live, it must escape the notice of the vulgar triumphing sceptics, and even of the doubting habits of his own mind. Yet it does live its own humble and hesitating life; and in its hesitations and its humility is its strength. He could not be acclaimed by any eager bishop as a lost sheep returning repentant to the fold; but he is not lost, nor is the universe to him anything but a home and the dear city of God even in the trenches.
His expression of this faith is always vague, tentative, and inconclusive. He is certain of something, but he cannot say what; yet he knows that he is certain, although, if he were to try to express his certainty in any old terms, he would reject it himself. He knows; but he cannot tell us or himself what he knows. There are sentences in which, as M. Chevrillon says, he speaks like an Indian sage; but I do not think that Indian philosophy would have satisfied him, because it is itself satisfied. For he is in this matter of faith a primitive, beginning to build a very small and humble temple out of the ruins of the past. He has no science of theology, nothing but emotions and values, and a trust in them. They are for a reality that he can scarcely express at all; and yet he is the more sure of its existence because of the torment through which he is passing. He uses that word _torment_ more than once. The war is to him a martyrdom in which he bears witness to his love, not only for France, but also for that larger country which is the universe. The torment makes him more sure of it than ever before; it heightens his sense of values; and he knows that what matters to a man is not whether he is joyful or sorrowful, but the quality of his joy and his sorrow.
There are times when, like an Indian sage, he thinks that all life is contemplation; but this thought is only the last refuge of the spirit against a material storm. He is not one of those who would go into the wilderness and lose themselves in the depths of abstract thought; he is a European, an artist, a lover, one for whom the visible world exists, and to whom the Christian doctrine of love is but the expression of his own experience. For a century or more our world, confident in its strength, its reason, its knowledge, has been undermining that doctrine with every possible heresy. In sheer wilfulness it has tried to empty life of all its values. It has made us ashamed of loving anything; for all love, it has told us, is illusion produced by the will to live, or the will to power, or some other figment of its own perverse thought.
And now, as a result of that perversity, the storm breaks upon us when we seem to have stripped ourselves of all shelter against it. The doctrine of the struggle for life becomes a fact in this war; but, if it were true, what creature endowed with reason would find life worth struggling for? Certainly not the writer of these letters. He fought, not only for his country, but to maintain a contrary doctrine; and we see him and a thousand others passing through the fiercest trial of faith at the moment when the mind of man has been by its own perverse activity stripped most bare of faith. So he cannot even express the faith for which he is ready to die; but he is ready to die for it. A few years ago he would have been sneered at for the vagueness of his language, but no one can sneer now. The dead will not spoil the spring, he says No, indeed: for by their death they have brought a new spring of faith into the world.