List Of Contents | Contents of The New Book Of Martyrs, by Georges Duhamel
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was an excited discussion as a result of which we separated: the
vehicles to go in search of a by-way, and we, the pedestrians, to
skirt the roads on which long lines of motor-lorries, coming and
going, passed each other in haste like the carriages of an immense

We had known since midnight where we were to take up our quarters;
the suburb of G----was only an hour's march further on. In the
fields, right and left, were bivouacs of colonial troops with
muddy helmets; they had come back from the firing line, and seemed
strangely quiet. In front of us lay the town, half hidden, full of
crackling sounds and echoes. Beyond, the hills of the Meuse, on
which we could distinguish the houses of the villages, and the
continuous rain of machine-gun bullets. We skirted a meadow strewn
with forsaken furniture, beds, chests, a whole fortune which
looked like the litter of a hospital. At last we arrived at the
first houses, and we were shown the place where we were expected.

There were two brick buildings of several storeys, connected by a
glazed corridor; the rest of the enclosure was occupied by wooden
sheds. Behind lay orchards and gardens, the first houses of the
suburb. In front, the wall of a park, a meadow, a railway track,
and La Route, the wonderful and terrible road that enters the town
at this very point.

Groups of lightly wounded men were hobbling towards the hospital;
the incessant rush of motors kept up the feverish circulation of a
demolished ant-hill.

As we approached the buildings, a doctor came out to meet us.

"Come, come. There's work enough for a month."

It was true. The effluvium and the moans of several hundreds of
wounded men greeted us. Ambulance No----, which we had come to
relieve, had been hard at it since the night before, without
having made much visible progress. Doctors and orderlies, their
faces haggard from a night of frantic toil, came and went,
choosing among the heaps of wounded, and tended two while twenty
more poured in.

While waiting for our material, we went over the buildings. But a
few days before, contagious diseases had been treated here. A
hasty disinfection had left the wards reeking with formaline which
rasped the throat without disguising the sickly stench of the
crowded sufferers. They were huddled round the stoves in the
rooms, lying upon the beds of the dormitories, or crouching on the
flags of the passages.

In each ward of the lower storey there were thirty or forty men of
every branch of the service, moaning and going out from time to
time to crawl to the latrines, or, mug in hand, to fetch something
to drink.

As we explored further, the scene became more terrible; in the
back rooms and in the upper building a number of severely wounded
men had been placed, who began to howl as soon as we entered. Many
of them had been there for several days. The brutality of
circumstances, the relief of units, the enormous sum of work, all
combined to create one of those situations which dislocate and
overwhelm the most willing service.

We opened a door, and the men who were lying within began to
scream at the top of their voices. Some, lying on their stretchers
on the floor, seized us by the legs as we passed, imploring us to
attend to them. A few bewildered orderlies hurried hither and
thither, powerless to meet the needs of this mass of suffering.
Every moment I felt my coat seized, and heard a voice saying:

"I have been here four days. Dress my wounds, for God's sake."

And when I answered that I would come back again immediately, the
poor fellow began to cry.

"They all say they will come back, but they never do."

Occasionally a man in delirium talked to us incoherently as we
moved along. Sometimes we went round a quiet bed to see the face
of the sufferer, and found only a corpse.

Each ward we inspected revealed the same distress, exhaled the
same odour of antiseptics and excrements, for the orderlies could
not always get to the patient in time, and many of the men
relieved themselves apparently unconcerned.

I remember a little deserted room in disorder, on the table a bowl
of coffee with bread floating in it; a woman's slippers on the
floor, and in a corner, toilet articles and some strands of fair
hair. ... I remember a corner where a wounded man suffering from
meningitis, called out unceasingly: 27, 28, 29 ... 27, 28, 29 ...
a prey to a strange obsession of numbers. I see a kitchen where a
soldier was plucking a white fowl ... I see an Algerian non-
commissioned officer pacing the corridor. ...

Towards noon, the head doctor arrived followed by my comrades, and
our vehicles. With him I made the round of the buildings again
while they were unpacking our stores. I had got hold of a syringe,
while waiting for a knife, and I set to work distributing morphia.
The task before us seemed immense, and every minute it increased.
We began to divide it hastily, to assign to each his part. The
cries of the sufferers muffled the sound of a formidable
cannonade. An assistant at my side, whom I knew to be energetic
and resolute, muttered between his teeth: "No! no! Anything rather
than war!"

But we had first to introduce some order into our Inferno.

In a few hours this order appeared and reigned. We were exhausted
by days of marching and nights of broken sleep, but men put off
their packs and set to work with a silent courage that seemed to
exalt even the least generous natures. Our first spell lasted for
thirty-six hours, during which each one gave to the full measure
of his powers, without a thought of self.

Four operation-wards had been arranged. The wounded were brought
in unceasingly, and a grave and prudent mind pronounced upon the
state of each, upon his fate, his future. ... Confronted by the
overwhelming flood of work to be done, the surgeon, before seizing
the knife, had to meditate deeply, and make a decision as to the
sacrifice which would ensure life, or give some hope of life. In a
moment of effective thought, he had to perceive and weigh a man's
whole existence, then act, with method and audacity.

As soon as one wounded man left the ward, another was brought in;
while the preparations for the operation were being made, we went
to choose among and classify the patients beforehand, for many
needed nothing more; they had passed beyond human aid, and
awaited, numb and unconscious, the crowning mercy of death.

The word "untransportable" once pronounced, directed all our work.
The wounded capable of waiting a few hours longer for attention,
and of going elsewhere for it were removed. But when the buzz of
the motors was heard, every one wanted to go, and men begging to
be taken away entered upon their death agony as they assured us
they felt quite strong enough to travel. ...

Some told us their histories; the majority were silent. They
wanted to go elsewhere ... and above all, to sleep, to drink.
Natural wants dominated, and made them forget the anguish of their
wounds. ...

I remember one poor fellow who was asked if he wanted anything.
... He had a terrible wound in the chest, and was waiting to be
examined. He replied timidly that he wanted the urinal, and when
the orderly hurried to him bringing it, he was dead.

The pressure of urgent duty had made us quite unmindful of the
battle close by, and of the deafening cannonade. However, towards
evening, the buildings trembled under the fury of the detonations.
A little armoured train had taken up its position near us. The
muzzle of a naval gun protruded from it, and from moment to moment
thrust out a broad tongue of flame with a catastrophic roar.

The work was accelerated at the very height of the uproar. Rivers
of water had run along the corridors, washing down the mud, the
blood and the refuse of the operation-wards. The men who had been
operated on were carried to beds on which clean sheets had been
spread. The open windows let in the pure, keen air, and night fell
on the hillsides of the Meuse, where the tumult raged and
lightnings flashed.

Sometimes a wounded man brought us the latest news of the battle.
Between his groans, he described the incredible bombardment, the
obstinate resistance, the counter-attacks at the height of the

All these simple fellows ended their story with the same words,
surprising words at such a moment of suffering:

"They can't get through now. ...

Then they began to moan again.

During the terrible weeks of the battle, it was from the lips of
these tortured men that we heard the most amazing words of hope
and confidence, uttered between two cries of anguish.

The first night passed under this stress and pressure. The morning
found us face to face with labours still vast, but classified,
divided, and half determined.

A superior officer came to visit us. He seemed anxious.

"They have spotted you," he said. "I hope you mayn't have to work
upon each other. You will certainly be bombarded at noon."

We had forgotten this prophecy by the time it was fulfilled.

About noon, the air was rent by a screeching whistle, and some
dozen shells fell within the hospital enclosure, piercing one of
the buildings, but sparing the men. This was the beginning of an
irregular but almost continuous bombardment, which was not
specially directed against us, no doubt, but which threatened us

No cellars. Nothing but thin walls. The work went on.

On the third day a lull enabled us to complete our organisation.
The enemy was bombarding the town and the lines persistently. Our
artillery replied, shell for shell, in furious salvos; a sort of
thunderous wall rose around us which seemed to us like a rampart.
... The afflux of wounded had diminished. We had just received men
who had been fighting in the open country, as in the first days of
the war, but under a hail of projectiles hitherto reserved for the
destruction of fortresses. Our comrade D----arrived from the
battlefield on foot, livid, supporting his shattered elbow. He
stammered out a tragic story: his regiment had held its ground
under a surging tide of fire; thousands of huge shells had fallen

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