- from the book 'the Book of France' edited by Winifred Stephens 1915
- 'The Saints of France'
- by Maurice Barrès
- Translated by Henry James
A Patriotic Manifesto
- the new saint - the French soldier
- for original French text: Les Saints de la France
Do you know the joy of seeing clear? It is one of the greatest that life gives us. O light that drives errors away! And, far from wasting, this joy increases by as much as we entertain it. They say that to see clear is to make on occasion for disabuse; but if it happens that our vision, settling on an object, rouses in us feelings of admiration, how great then the pleasure! The perfect thing is to love what shows in fullest light.
Let us therefore avoid giving ear to a lot of taradiddles about our soldiers in the trenches. It is just as they are, in the gravity of their reality, wrapped in all their severity of colour, that they will rouse most completely our affection and our respect.
A new sort of war altogether unrolls at this time along the far lines of the front. Beyond doubt our soldiers inherit the souls of their forefathers: a Deroulede is a Bayard; a Joffre repeats certain features of Catinat and of Drouot; and you have only to read in our young soldiers' letters the glad, bright, dashing things said as it might be by Lasalle and the others. But none the less the actual conditions of this war are so special that our soldiers take from them a character quite new, I believe, in our history.
I suffer when I find episodes of the front wantonly distorted to drama and story. The romantic at this moment would be just in the poilu1 and his trench. Well, I have been there to see! There were our soldiers stiffened out by their many thick garments and with the dried mud that wrapped them round in a sort of carapace. It was a day of rain. Some had on their backs their empty knapsacks of coarse cloth, and others over them the shelter of sheets of corrugated iron resting on the pair of earthen sides. The struggle of their life made their eyes shine in their bewhiskered faces, and yet left in all their being a vague expression of sleep. They listened to me with the charming natural politeness of our peasants and with their good smile. They quite understood my friendliness, and I met with emotion something in them that I catch myself calling their saintship. The poilu in his trench is a peasant disguised as a warrior, thinking of his people and things at home, not in the least wanting to eat the Boche heart and liver raw, holding on with his feet frozen and his hands numb, and quite sure "we shall get them in the end."
These admirable survivors of the first hecatombs that hold out with such splendid endurance in the mud of the trenches, under the ceaseless rain of bullets and shells, have learned to practise the virtue of patience with a stoutness not quite expected of our army and that seems to advert to the peasant qualities of our race. They know or they feel that this war is a war of wearing out, such as will be at the end to the profit of whichever of the two adversaries has best hoarded and stored his powers. They know that the one who attacks recklessly and without sufficient preparation the "inviolable front" breaks himself against a murderous resistance, bristling with obstacles scarce to be overcome. They have mastered this to their cost, and, thank God, to the cost of the German masses dashed and smashed against our defences. They reckon that time works for the cause of the Allies. This waiting upon time has enabled us already to repair our insufficiencies of material preparation, and has given us in addition opportunity and leisure to gain over the German a huge moral superiority.
This superiority was born of the battle of the Marne, when in a manoeuvring fight, that is to say in the conditions most opposed to fighting in the trenches, we bent their masses under the weight of our shock and our effort, possessed though they were of the advantage of number. And then we have not ceased slowly to assert and enlarge this superiority in artillery fighting and minor actions, thanks to our 105's and our high explosive shells for our 120's. The poilu knows all this; he knows it by the best learning, by his daily experience; he makes sure of it in the horizon that he embraces from his trench and by the succession of facts that compose his perilous life. Hence his catch that "we shall get them in the end."
We shall get them above all if our civilians hold on.
And how may we best hold on? What does the patience asked of us come to?
It is asked of us not to know impatience. It is asked of us, commercial, industrial as we are, political as we are, not to weigh upon events by tears, by plaints, by carpings. These soldiers amazing in endurance, these leaders every one of whom has made his sacrifice, have only one thing in fear, which is that the impatience of their friends and their families may press them to proceed to a premature offensive by attacks ill prepared.
But that will do for us-we understand. We shall take pattern from your patience, a pale enough merit on our part, but on yours as shining as the purple of your spilt blood. To the end we shall remain what we have been these six months: a nation gathered up behind its General of Generals and all alive with the spirit which but yesterday broke out in a speech repeated to me by a friend. "I have been with Madame X. and her daughter," he writes me; "her son has just fallen on the field of honour. On the terrible news the mother said to the daughter: "We'll say nothing about it. We'll hide our pain as much as possible, so as not to add to the sadness- there will be so many more deaths.' "
Think how fine. Even the word "sadness," by its belonging to the order of feeling and its giving thus the measure of the speaker's, is deeply moving in its spareness. Saintly women, it isn't only sadness that you instinctively wish to avoid spreading round you, but the public reason itself that you seek to protect, to forearm against the justest sensibility. You discern that if we should turn to softness our France, bodies and souls, would be flung to earth, martyred, annihilated, and the blood of our heroes have been shed for nothing. We should betray our dead. We must win. And already complete victory is to be seen at the end of our patience.
Pain becomes present in creatures so that all the moral beauty their nation is capable of shall thereby appear. This is what the Prussians are unable to learn. Envious ever of the chivalrous nation, they have wished to overthrow to earth our houses of certitude and of faith and to give us up to the anxieties of the spirit. They believe the treasure of our soul squandered in our vain disputes and our ancient serenity forever dead. But in the very instant of their uttering this cry of death, this cry of happy hatred of the old world of feeling, their insults themselves were our revulsion and the spirit of sacrifice transfigured our nation. They have piled up ruins at the heart of Rheims and of our villages of Lorraine and of the North and of the lie de France, and, lo, the whole of France becomes a national cathedral. All Frenchmen are united, and even the contradictors of beliefs have suddenly felt themselves again sons of those who, through the long centuries, have prayed in the old houses of prayer. We take up again the feeling of our unity. All men's shoulders touch in the trenches, and all the hearts of women are together.
The heart of the women of France is not that instinct, that ingenuous state of the first hours of the world, still akin to animal innocence; it is a condition of thought that has burnt itself pure, working out of the most informed civilisation, the material parts of which it casts off to become all love and reason. It was formed, from generation to generation, in the deep chapels of our churches and round about the Sepulchre; it draws comfort and revival to-day from the van of the train of the wounded, from the bed of the ambulance, and, borne by the pair of wings of patriotism and charity, it moaningly hovers over our soldiers on the field of battle. The hearts of Frenchwomen flock to the army like a flight of birds, to admire and help with their love the saviours of the land.
We have not perhaps emphatically enough noted the true character of the trench warfare in which the German army took refuge when it recrossed the Aisne under our pursuit. Such a decision confessed to a want of power, or rather to a state of weakening. For the trenches, you see, allow an army to hold a given front with certainty by an effective force equal but to a third of the one necessary in occupation without trenches. It takes an average of a man every two yards to hold trenches, whereas a line of battle requires an average density of three men to two yards (which of course doesn't mean that the men are aligned by any such simplified scheme).
The trenches are an expedient of genius enabling the Germans to stand up to the allied Russians, English and French from the North Sea to Switzerland and from Konigsberg to the edge of Rumania. But expedients are by their essence precarious.
We shall break through the enemy's line when the victor of the Marne shall decide to. And I shall come back to this, I shall share with you a few of the ideas that are now familiar to our soldiers and that comfort their patience. I have only wished to-day to repeat to you what we are surely but of one mind about: the truth that any impatience would be on our part the worst of faults. It would be of such service to the Germans. It would have as a consequence to put the lives of our soldiers in peril by unwise operations and to compromise final success by attempting to gather it too fast.
This let all those of us behind say to ourselves and to each other: any betrayal, and even any inward consent to impatience, goes straight against the purpose of the patient poilus, who mean to wait, and know how, that they may become masters of the hour.
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