ZEGGERSKAPPEL, 10 October, 1917
The weather just now can be summed up in a word – wretched : not exactly wet, never dry, sometimes heavy thunder-showers, sometimes watery sunshine, placing a dead gleam on the pools and muddy roads. I have become so accustomed to “glabber”, that it must be knee-deep before it disturbs me. I think it must have reached that stage in the front-line.
We possess one resource, not too trustworthy duckboards: there is no fatigue more exhausting than stumbling over several miles of slippery boards with yawning shell-holes on each side, filled to the brim with foul water. The enemy usually has their range, with the result that they go up in the air every morning. Not lately, however, for his artillery has had a frightful time of it, knocked to pieces by our shells.
I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.
Our men are growing more confident every day ; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach. A poor set of devils they are, too, in their barbed-wire cages ! Thin-faced, with high cheek-bones, pale as death, wearing old uniforms and cloth caps, instead of steel helmets, most of them unfeignedly glad to be well out of it,unashamed of the title of “prisoner”. The old swagger has gone out of them. Their nerves have been shaken to bits by our shells.
I found a scrap of paper with the curiously apposite verses :-
Autour de lui, voici l’Automne à peine éclos.
L’avalanche des fruits ruisselle, dans l’enclos,
Le soleil chauffe et luit, le flot baisse ses rives,
Et lui marche, ébloui, dans ces effluves d’or,
Accordant, prodiguant des caresses craintives
Au monde sans prise qu’il pourrait perdre encore.
“En ces jours déchirants”
(The warrior come home to a peaceful home-country, new to its beauty, grateful for its remembrance.)
This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalising to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half- ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream. The people of this church, who lay there in the long shadow beyond the tall, iron wickerwork, were poor with an honest poverty. There was no ostentation, no flaunting sheen of marble, dead draperies, and the conventional urns, but a misty angel in a corner, with bowed head, like melancholy smiling with a vague sweetness of grief, as if all the rudeness and directness of earth had melted away to pale beauty in those tenderly clasped hands, and human sorrow become radiant glory, shrined in peaceful Nowhere could one escape,
Acquiescence. or did wish to escape, that haunting thought of death glorified to the angel, decay become a slumbering beauty beneath those slowly-heaving chestnut branches with their constant murmur of dropping leaves touched to earth by a gentle wind. The church had buttresses at equal distance, and between them, half-obscured, vaguely splendid still were paintings of Christ and the Virgin, the Father throned in a chalky glory, and angels with to a cornice where flaking wings flying swallows were twittering and hovering, silent as ghosts, with spots of silver on their wings as they swooped into the sun and came Before the arched back again to shadow. entrance were two statues – two saints probably – rudely sculptured, with falling features so that the noses were mere blotches and the ears had been rubbed close to the head. Outside, on the square, there lay a broad, golden sunshine, so peaceful, so mellow, so radiant, that it seemed war had lapsed into mystery and all the agonies of life smoothed down to a haunting dream.
You will see the old sentiments cannot die, and it is not desirable they should. They are worth something more than this, see farther and higher, and have a longer value. Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection.