7th October Continued.
BUT neither visits nor encouragement can efface the sadness of such sights as I have had before my eyes these last few days.
One only thing, now, seems to me to be desirable ---an end to the massacres. And not only does it not seem to be coming, but one can't really wish for it yet ; the work of liberation would be left unfinished and it would all begin over again in another ten years.
We are far from the end yet! Yesterday's communiqué at 5 o'clock: "Our Front is extending more and more;" at eleven, "Action still more violent."
That is what one has to read after spending hours beside the dying! That means that the cries of pain and the agonies of the wounded, the sobs or dull amaze of families, all these scenes which make one's heart bleed, will be re-enacted a thousand, thousand times through things that are being done at this very moment.
Thousands and thousands of men, fifty thousand, a hundred thousand---we can't keep count now---are being killed these days, or grievously hurt, like those who die in my arms.
And the situation remains the same."
Here is my story for yesterday.
At two o'clock in the morning I am called to a major who came in nine days ago with three serious wounds and pneumonia. I find his sister with him.
"He's not in danger?" she implores.
It seems to me that he is. To make certain I ask an English hospital nurse, who tells me that he can't last more than three or four hours. The poor woman stands there, with staring eyes and heaving breast, waiting for my answer. Why should I deceive her ? She must know anyhow presently, and if she is unprepared it will be worse for her. I keep silence, but it is enough. She begins to cry; I point to the other patients and take her out into the courtyard. Appeals to her faith at length make her a little calmer. She wants to see her brother again. "Yes, but on condition that you will be brave. There is still a slight hope; emotion might destroy it. Say, as he does, with our Lord: "Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." In those words of Divine agony your brother has found strength day by day. He has given proof of an admirable faith and submission; he has piously received Holy Communion and Extreme Unction. Be worthy of him."
She promised everything, poor creature. And indeed, when she went back to the room, she was silent ; but she threw herself on the sick man and kissed him so ardently that he became uneasy in his turn.
It was impossible to let her stay there; I proposed, and she consented, that she should go into the Chapel.
While she was shedding her tears and praying her prayers, I watched beside the dying man. Sublime agony! Whether his mind wandered, or his reason returned, between the priest and him there was no question but of France and God. Even while he was delirious, there were fragments of prayers or military orders.
At one moment I began the Act of Charity: "My God, I love Thee with all my heart . . ." He went on with it to the very end: "... And I love my neighbour as myself for love of Thee."
And true it is he loves God, this brave Christian. The night before last again did he not beg for the Communion to help him through the night of fever and suffocation he was beginning to dread ? And true it is he loved his neighbour, the valiant soldier who hazarded and sacrificed his life for his country.
At half-past-four, as the end does not seem imminent, I go to the Chapel, and forestalling the usual hour, say the Mass for the Dying for him. I have rarely said a more touching one. The poor sister was the whole congregation and repeated the responses amidst her tears. Afterwards I took her back, calmed and strengthened, to the bed of the dying man ; and then I was obliged to go to get a little sleep. When I came back, two hours later, the bed was empty.
In my morning round, I pause, at nine o'clock, at the bedside of a lieutenant from Lyons, of twenty-three, with delicate features, and a very gentle expression, who seems weak but not in danger. After a little talk, during which I hear that all his battalion went to confession before they started, it is arranged that I shall bring him Communion to-morrow morning.
At three o'clock he died, almost suddenly, in the arms of his mother and his young wife ; he had been married six months.
They too were noble Christians; I took them to the Chapel while their beloved was being carried into the chamber of the dead. Though accepted with faith and resignation, their anguish was none the less piercing and heart-rending.
At midnight I am waked to go to a young Breton who is dying. The night hospital-attendant is, thank God, an Anglican Ritualist who knows the value of souls, and who never fails to let me know in cases of necessity. His piety is touching, for he accompanies me as I carry the Eucharist and the oils for Extreme Unction. We go together to the patient, a boy of twenty, pink and white, the face of a baby who suffers and knows not why. But he is a man for strength; the fever is high; he contorts himself, he struggles, he throws off his coverings, he tosses his arms about, but he makes no noise. I speak to him; he listens---so prettily! I give him absolution, the Sacrament of the Sick, and stay praying beside him. The restlessness does not cease; he asks for drink; they bring him a cup of water which he thrusts away: "That's too little; I want quarts!"
I take his hand, I propose Holy Communion, the Visit of our Lord. "Yes, yes; I am quite willing!" I make haste, for his disordered movements increase and may be the last. As soon as the host has touched his lips and a little water has taken it down, he grows quiet, clasps his hands, closes his eyes, and for ten minutes in angelic peace, he remains lifted above the troubles of this world. Then the restlessness returning, an injection sends him to sleep and I go back to my bed, if not to my slumbers.
When I saw him this morning, he was a little better, and they were beginning to hope. His uncle had come with his young sister; she is exactly like him and he has no more of a warlike look than she has. Poor children! they are orphans. If she has to see him die, her little brother!
At noon yesterday I lost one of the patients to whom I was most attached and who was also very fond of me. A professor of thirty from Lyons, a lieutenant in the Reserves, and father of three children. He showed me the photograph in which they made a pretty group with his young wife, his mother, and himself---a picture never more to be seen. He was attacked by gangrene; one of his legs had been completely amputated ; but the sacrifice was useless; it could not stop the deadly ravages. Unknown to himself the disease increased ; so much did it deceive him, that feeling less and less pain, he believed he was nearing recovery.
It was heart-breaking to hear him expressing his hopes, when we knew the truth and watched his poor features growing thinner, more discoloured, already taking on a corpse-like appearance. Still his eyes flamed with life, his whole soul took refuge there, like a queen in her last-left fortress while enemies invade her territory.
Those too brilliant eyes deceived his family who come from far away; even yesterday his wife was still mistaken about them. Warned early this morning, the poor girl, with her aunt, came a quarter of an hour too late.
They sent her to me first.
"But is it really serious, Monsieur l'Aumônier ?
"Yes, my child; very serious."
Sobbing, she begs to go to him at once.
I make a sign to the aunt to go first; and little by little, my silence, my looks show her the truth. I told her of his peaceful end, his last words after receiving Extreme Unction: "If I should die, tell my dear wife I died as a good Christian, and that I leave my blessing for the children."
She wants to see him, to kiss him. While I hesitate---the reason can be guessed---the aunt comes back. She has not seen him herself; he was no longer in his room among the living but in the chamber of the dead, and wrapped in his shroud.
After they have wept in each other's arms, I persuade the two poor women not to go into that dismal place where what remains is not himself, who is with God, and with them unseen, and whom they must always remember under the gentle shape they loved.
And like other mourners, I took them to the Chapel. Near the Christ, the Compassionate, and the Dispenser of Eternal Life, their grief was stilled by degrees to resignation and divinely turned to hope.
What it is like to be wounded; suddenly, in full possession of one's powers, to be stopped as by a thunderbolt; when consciousness returns, after the shock, to find oneself covered with blood, one knows not why; to understand what has happened only when one is carried off; to ask of others what is the matter with you and if it is serious ; to be laid upon the mattress of a motor-ambulance, taken to the hospital, taken an inventory of by the doctor; to feel the following night more and more weary, while the hurt seems to gain ground, and insomnia is made hideous with nightmare---such is the experience I went through three days ago, reduced, I hasten to say, to its strictest minimum; and yet, even so, instructive enough to make me enter better into the trials of my dear soldiers.
That is why I mention it ; apart from that it has to do with nothing but a commonplace motor-accident.
While I was going over to the other side of the Seine, to receive the body of one of our dead at the new cemetery at Neuilly, my little car was run into at a crossing by an enormous dray that had not condescended to sound its horn or to take notice of ours. The two brakes, put on at the same time, confined the damage to the shaking up of our machine, the shivering of the wind-screen on my head, and the violent collision of my person with that of the chauffeur. The breaking of my eyeglasses, some small cuts made by the glass above the eye, and a bigger one near the car ; the bruising of certain nerves and muscles, bore witness that but for the Divine protection, I might have been much more injured, and instead of going to the cemetery for some one else, have had to take myself there.
If this small, small experience could give me some idea of the shock and the first effects of certain woundings of the victims of battle, there is no comparison possible as to the time that follows. Leaving out of account that their injuries are otherwise serious, the soldiers must sometimes remain for long hours, if it be not days, on the spot where they fell, or else drag their torn limbs to look for a dressing-station; if they find none, they lie down in the shelter of a rock, a wood, an empty house. And when help comes---supposing it does come---the wound is twenty times more serious and often even incurable. . . .
My thoughts go back to my dear sufferers from gangrene, and I am ashamed to have thought about myself.
One of the nurses who devote themselves to them, coming to see me this morning, I asked for news of them and if they were not too greatly affected by the lieutenant's death.
"Too greatly ? No," she replied, "I might even venture to say, not enough. When he was carried out they hardly took any notice and said not a word. And it was just the same the other day, when that poor Englishman died. One would suppose that their personal sufferings and danger made them egotistical. They make me think of the poultry in a farm-yard when one is taken for the kitchen and the rest go on pecking away as if nothing had happened."
The indifference of our patients must indeed be great to give such an opinion of them to the nurse, one of the gentlest and most compassionate of women. I tell her that she is wrong to judge by appearances, and that at bottom, if they display no emotion at the death of their neighbours, it may be because they are really feeling too much, and don't want to look too close at the horrible ending if they are in the same case.
I could not convince her, but when I met her again: "You were right," she said; "I was unjust to them. Imagine, they did not know. An indiscreet visitor has just told N. of the death of the lieutenant ; he had had no idea of it and is much upset about it. As soon as a patient has breathed his last, they turn back the sheet over his head and carry him to the mortuary ; the rest think only that he is being taken to another room."
Go on thinking so, my poor friends; it is not I that will undeceive you. Your mistake, moreover, is not very far from the truth. He who is carried away is, as you well say, taken to another room; his body is going to be put into a narrow and dark dwelling-place, nailed down between four boards, his dazzled soul soars into infinite spaces of light.
The consequences of my accident have lasted a little longer than I expected. For ten days. I have been obliged to confine my movements and occupations to what was absolutely necessary. But for the daily massage of the bruised muscles, I should have felt the effects for several weeks.
The interruption in these notes therefore means nothing but stiffness in their writer. Around him nothing is altered, neither afar off, where the War, alas! continues its ravages, nor near at hand in the hospital, where its victims are always being received. But, indeed, it is true that in the interval a great misfortune has put France into mourning---the death of the Comte de Mun. To all of us who love our country and the Church, both in word and action, he was a source of strength in the midst of many trials ; now, who will help us to bear up against the trial of losing him at such a moment ? Who ? He himself still, by his works, of which the most fruitful and the most recent, that of the appointment of free military Chaplains, might suffice for a saint's glorification; by the example he gave of the services that may be rendered to all, even to the public authorities, by a believer as free from human respect as from bitterness; a Christian whose charity never ceased to equal his faith, and finally by the universal harmony he created around his grave ; where all parties vied in admiration; where the regret of all men with hearts and the homage of the Chief of the Church as well as of the Chief of the State, met together ; a meeting such as has been till now exceedingly rare, but still possible as was thus shown, and which has become, thanks to him, less difficult to bring about.
On the fifteenth we received, from the station at Achères, one of our most important convoys, twenty wounded, for the most part sent on from the hospitals at Arras and Saint-Pol, some of them recently hurt.
Here is one, for instance, that was wounded only on the 12th, but very badly.
"Were you hit in the trenches ?"
"No ; after spending three days in them without budging, we had just come out for a change of troops. We went through Saint Eloi, near Arras; in the middle of the villages, a big shell came upon us, one of those that burst in the air. Ten of us were struck; two seriously wounded; as for me, I got nine or ten splinters---in the head, the arms, the calves and the feet."
"Is there nothing in your back?"
"I was forgetting---yes, a little one in my shoulder, not dangerous."
This is a sturdy Lorrainer from Arsweiler, near Blamont, who had emigrated so as to do his service in France.
Two days after his arrival, now installed in his white bed, he told me his story afresh, laughing over his collection of bullets, shrapnel, shell-splinters.
"It's a museum of your own," I answered to hide my admiration of him.
Another, less lucky, was first taken to the hospital at Arras, where the number of doctors was insufficient for the yield of the unceasing fight. Hurt in the knee, he was perhaps a little neglected in favour of the more serious cases. When the wound began to fester and had extended to the thigh, the doctor attended him and even proposed amputation, which he tried to refuse. More energetic measures then appeared to diminish the disease, but then came the bombardment of the hospital, and he had to spend four days in the damp cellars. Fancy the confusion amongst a staff already overworked! They sent off as many patients as possible. Our soldier was put into the ambulance train. When he arrived here, and the doctor had inspected him our Surgeon in Chief was summoned. The draining-tubes were changed for the first time for a week, and the amputation was decided on as soon as rest and his strength would enable him to. endure it.
It is nobody's fault, but all the same, here is yet another Frenchman who, for want of proper attention, is to lose one of his limbs, if not his life.
Rather fewer deaths ; only two or three in the week; another this morning, from that horrible tetanus which had spared us for some time, thanks to the injections of serum, which have been lately more frequent ; a poor young soldier of twenty that his day-nurse, an American here, used to call in motherly fashion by his Christian name, André, and I did the same. His uncle in Paris saw him, but his parents got here from the country two hours too late. They, too, wanted to look upon him once more ; we gave way, after explaining everything to them, and on condition that they did not kiss him.
How cruel, that necessary precaution!
We held the poor mother and father by the arm while the white sheet was lifted. Thank God! his expression was still sweet and peaceful; but the colour already. . . .
" My darling, my poor darling, to think that's you! My poor darling, my poor darling, my poor darling. . . ."
We knelt to recite the Lord's Prayer.
"Thy will be done," was in it. I added nothing to it. Afterwards we went to the Chapel, and then to the office ; the father wanted to give something to the nurse. The mother spoke of her last parcel sent to the young soldier.
"Stockings and a vest I knitted myself, and he wrote that that kept him nice and warm."
They had brought a sheet from home, a beautiful sheet, quite new, fearing greatly what had really happened ; unluckily they had left it at the uncle's, and there could be no delay. Not to be able to carry him away at once, but to leave him till after the War, was very hard, too. But they understood, and submitted. They submitted to it all---the purpose of God and the laws of the country. O, the brave folk! but how sad it is ! What great things ought to be brought forth by such sacrifices !
At two o'clock I ministered to the poor paralysed man whose brain had been laid bare, and now we have lost him. His life was torture to him, and yet his death grieves me like a personal loss. I never went through the big ward he was in without saying a word to him, without asking him one or two questions to which he answered yes, very low; and I felt, I saw, in his eyes that my short visit gave him pleasure. How much better off, my friend, you will be with God, Who inspired me with this affection for you!
Contrary to what we had been led to expect, André's parents were allowed to take him away after the ceremony. It is a happy change and one that it would be very desirable to see made general. "They took them away from us while they were alive; at least let them give them back to us when they are dead! " said a young wife, heart-broken at having to go back without her husband's body.(11)
It is long since I wrote anything about the events of the War. It develops to such an extent that my poor notes in face of it seem like an ordinary photographic apparatus in front of an immense landscape; they are too small to reflect it. My impressions are the same as those of the rest of the world---a mixture of confidence and dejection; relief when there is a success of the Allies, and sadness at the thought that it will last so long, and that thousands of men are being killed or wounded day by day without interruption.
Besides, I rarely receive now any other news but what is in the papers; I speak of the English papers; for as to the French ones, they are kept far too much in leading-strings.
What harm could it do, for instance, to let the details of operations completely finished be known, and, when they are several weeks old, the many fine exploits, collective or individual, which satisfy both the imagination and the heart ? Always the same system of treating men like children, when, on the contrary, children should be treated like men. But rather more special news I have had, yesterday concerning Germany, to-day, England.
One of my friends had found means, after many difficulties, to take back to Switzerland two little Germans who were with him at the beginning of the War. He put them into the hands of their father, with whom he was for some time, and who expressed a very natural gratitude to him ; and he was able to discover the state of mind that reigns in Berlin. It is not the sense of discouragement we fancy---far from it. Antwerp makes up for Paris, and final success is anticipated as firmly as with us. It remains to be seen what will happen when the truth is known there.
As to our friends, the English, they are doing things with a vengeance; it is said that they are hiring their military buildings at Nantes and other places on terms of three years. There's determination for you! Still it does not prevent, anyhow just now, some nervousness. While refusing to take literally the German boasts of invasion, they look with no pleasure on the prospect of a bombardment of London by Zeppelins. Westminster after Reims, a fine addition to the picture of German Kultur. Can it be true that the famous Abbey has been insured for £150,000 I don't say that it isn't worth double that; but that's an idea we should never have had.
As a precaution, I prefer that which is beginning to be taken against William's subjects living in England. If there are more than fifty thousand of them capable of bearing arms, it would be a fine asset for the enemy in case of invasion. Putting idle fancies aside, circumstances might be conjectured when the danger would become a real one ; circumstances such as the seizure of the Channel ports by the Germans; aërial raids; storms scattering the Fleet.
And what is known about preparations made beforehand by the genius for spying that characterizes the enemy ? Concrete platforms awaiting the big howitzers; concealed apparatus for wireless telegraphy; individual treachery secured in likely. spots. We pretty well know now the cause of the fall of Maubeuge.
Certainly England did not wait for this beginning of personal danger to prove herself a valiant and helpful Ally; we shall never forget what we owe to her fleet, nor the part her army took in stopping the invading troops. But it appears that the occupation of Antwerp and Ostend, the attempt on Dunkirk, the coveting of Calais, in short, the manifest plan of getting as near as possible to the English coast, have acted on her already roused distrust as the best possible stimulants. The number of enlistments, I was told by a doctor who has just come back from London, increases with danger; stationary in times of success, it rises as soon as the Allies appear to be losing.
But let us leave all that ; one fact stands out above all else. In response to Lord Kitchener's call, the English did not wait for the descent of the enemy along the Belgian coast-line. I think there are not many peoples in the world who would give at one stroke five hundred thousand volunteers. And here they are nearing a million.
England, like France, Russia, and sainted Belgium, has gone into it with her whole heart and strength, all her men and all her resources; Germans and Austrians may feel sure about that. That is why we shall not lose confidence. Even if it so happened---may God forbid!---that we lost the great battle being fought for several days between the sea and the Oise. It is said to be more important and more bloody than all the previous ones, It troubles the imagination, and the coast from Calais to Ostend looks all red to me.
Half our ambulances started for the North the morning before last; they were not quite certain where, but alas! only too surely to come upon great carnage. Our brave friends have obtained authority to go to the Front, even under fire, to glean their bloody harvest.
Five o'clock in the evening. The chief officer of the expedition has just returned; he brought no wounded with him. Our cars are very far away, one can't tell where; they are working on the field of battle. They take their convoys to dressing-stations, clearing hospitals, ambulance-trains, and then return to the Front to look for other victims. There are many, many; more than can be helped immediately; and they are being cut down without a break.
To-night came in three wounded from Dixmude; they had left the ambulance-train at Juvisy. The aspect of the War changes; more sanguinary than ever, it has the advantage, if it be one, of re-appearing in the open air. They are killing each other in the fields, along the rivers and canals, on the shores of the sea; they are killing each other in the towns and villages, taken, re-taken, plundered, destroyed from top to bottom. I was about to say that this is a change from the war in the trenches ; but, in fact, that goes on none the less on all the rest of the immense front.
Here is a marine from Cherbourg (and it is a proof of the uprooting of all things), who, before fighting at Dixmude, had been at Ghent, and, a few days earlier, at Reims. He joined the Army in the middle of August, as a volunteer, like all his battalion. He was wounded three days ago, on the 24th, at two o'clock; a bullet broke the bone of his arm. The shock made him fall into a brook, fortunately not deep, where he remained several hours, projectiles falling fast into it. In spite of his wound, he tried to get off his haversack ; it was a long and painful business, but he succeeded, and used it for a shield for his head. Sheltered thus from bullets, he quickly began to run other risks. The Germans set fire to a tank of petrol, and the dangerous liquid began to run into the brook. Our friend greatly fears that several wounded men who were lying near him, among them his captain, must have been burnt. As for him, in spite of the loss of blood which had weakened him, he managed to climb up on to the bank, but only to find himself close to the German lines, which had advanced. He dragged himself a few hundred yards, obtained the assistance of a comrade, and at last reached the French ambulance. A motor-car took him to Furnes, where he was put into an ambulance-train going to Orleans. At the end of two days of exhausting travelling, his weakness necessitated his being set down at Juvisy. We hope to make him all right again.
I asked him if he had seen the English ships that had taken part in the battle; but he had only heard the reports of their guns, and he declared that they did enormous damage among the massed troops of the enemy. Another of our three wounded, who also went to Dixmude on leaving Reims, but by Paris and Dunkirk, saw them distinctly as he went along the shore, and even from the spot where he was fighting.
To-day's paper tells us that some of our submarines are there, too.
The climax is reached engines of war come alike from the earth, the air, and the waves; and there are others that travel underground to blow up trenches, towns, barracks, forests, everything where human life is found. Science is mistress of the world !
Forgive me if I let a cry of bitterness escape my lips !
To-day is not cheerful. To the three wounded of last night, four others were added at one o'clock, and we expect twenty this evening. Of course we receive them gladly ; we should like to look after a hundred times as many. But when they come in blood-stained and disfigured; when one sees what war has made of them, how can one help detesting it, that worker of suffering and death ? How can one think without horror that it still goes on, more strenuous than ever, and that no one knows when it will stop ?
And then, my little Breton that was thought out of danger; my little Breton, so gentle, so patient under his great sufferings---the one that was so like his young sister---is not going on at all well. His leg is no longer curable, and the disease is spreading over his whole body; every spot is painful to the touch ; if he leans too long on one side, sores begin to open in it. In short, there must be amputation. He understood that himself and even asked to have it done yesterday while there was some hesitation in proposing it to him. I stayed with him a little while this morning, and saying nothing about the Sacraments which I had administered to him a few days ago, I simply said my morning prayers with him, like a mother with her child.
The amputation was performed at two o'clock,. and I hear that he bore the operation well, but came out of it very weak, and must not yet be spoken to.
At half -past six I was allowed to see him ; at seven, he was dead.
He just gently stopped living, "like a poor little bird," said his nurse, who was likewise fond of him, a kind mother who has three sons in the Army. Our French assistants and our American nurses supplement each other admirably; neither care for the body nor care for the soul fail our patients.
"That's right; hold my hand!" the little Breton used to say to his French nurse, when the pain was too great.
At the last, she wept as if he had been one of her own, as did the American nurse too, I feel bound to say, lest the look, perhaps intentional, of professional stiffness, should be misleading.
One after the other, and hour after hour through almost the whole night, the cars we have left have been bringing in fresh wounded. They fetch from the station those who look the most wretched, those that have to be taken out of the ambulance train, because it is quite out of the question for them to go as far as the towns in the Centre, the South, or the West for which they were set down. You can imagine what awful things we see.
I gave the Sacraments to two last night, soon after they arrived. One died without regaining consciousness, and the other is but little better. A third, who had gangrene and seemed dying, gives us a little hope now that he has been dressed, a dressing that was very like an operation. If he had come in two hours later, it was to the mortuary that he would have had to be taken.
In these last few days we have taken in fifty. For none of them did I feel greater pity than for a poor Reservist hit by a bullet that went through his forehead from right to left, severing the optic nerve and closing his eyes for ever. He does not yet know the extent of his misfortune. "If only I see clearly again after the dressing," he keeps on saying; and so far no one has had the courage to crush his last hope---I no more than the others.
Two others of the wounded of the day before yesterday had been blinded by the plaster from a high wall along which they were taking shelter, and which had been knocked down by a shell; they have both begun to see a little again to-day. But it's no good deluding oneself; the case of the first is final ; he will be for ever in darkness.
When he learns it, my God, inspire me with words of resignation. What can I do, or say ? It frightens me beforehand. My God, I will pray that Thou wilt work upon his heart without the intervention of Thy minister.
IT is already too marvellous that Thou deignest so often to make use of us; in most of the phases of existence, Thou dost associate men with Thy actions; Thou attachest them to Thyself and unites them together in a constant solidarity. Thou usest parents to give life, and, while it is yet fragile, to sustain it ; Thou usest masters to instruct and to transmit to the new-comers the heritage of the past ; Thou usest social organization to give to each an easier, finer, and higher fate. But that Thou shouldst use men too for the spreading and developing in other men of supernatural grace, part of Thy truth, Thy love, Thy holiness, a right, a beginning of admittance into Thy infinite happiness---that is what astonishes, crushes, plunges into an abyss of confusion and gratitude, us Thy priests. And yet that is how it is. We almost lose consciousness of it in the exercise of a ministry which is always the same; but when new conditions arise and make us forsake our routine, we perceive afresh the superhuman greatness of the powers confided to us and we tremble as we use them.
I had this experience to-day as I dispensed the grace of the Divine Forgiveness.
The Feast of All Saints and All Souls; no better occasion could offer. Many confessed so as to communicate. I proposed it first to those whose wounds give some cause for anxiety ; but to numbers of others, too. And it is in the choice of these last, as in the way to approach their minds, that I most feel the action of something higher of which I am only the instrument. I hesitate to make a comparison which sounds profane, but it is so exact a one Well, yes, I am like a medium in the hands of the mesmerist; I feel a sort of current from on high pass into me which guides me by preference into such or such a ward; stops me at one bed rather than another; suggests to me the words I ought to say ; and when the moment comes for the Sacramental formula, transfuses from my soul to the other a secret virtue, a spiritual strength, a grace.
Ten o'clock. I really believe that at Mass this morning not a soldier able to walk nor a Catholic nurse was missing.
Although that did not make up a large congregation, there were, as the Epistle for All Saints says: "Of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues"; French, English and American women; soldiers of our own, from England, from Scotland, from Ireland and Africa, clothed according to their countries or their dressings, several brought in in armchairs and by the help of crutches ; others with an arm in a sling, or a bandaged head.
And it was for them, for their families, for their dead that I had to say a few words on the Gospel for the day, the opportune gospel of the Beatitudes : "Blessed are they that weep, for they shall be comforted."
Many received Communion in the Chapel; many received it after Mass in their wards ; and it was good of Christ to go to find our wounded on their bed of suffering. Almost everywhere, He had picked out the most tried; and in one ward where each one was in danger---that of the patients suffering from gangrene---He tarried with all. And, after His divine passing, the door of that sad limbo was left ajar upon Paradise.
Nine o'clock at night. When we had already passed from the twilight of All Saints to the night of the Feast of All Souls, a poor soldier of twenty came to us, who himself looked like an apparition from beyond the grave, yellow, emaciated, eyes bright with fever, and in a quiet, expressionless voice, mixing up sensible answers with the ramblings of strong delirium.
" Ward 69," says the doctor without hesitation. It is the gangrene ward.
He is so bad that I think it right to stay there during the first dressings. So he is undressed. Horrible sight! It must be days since he was attended to. From the thigh which received the initial wound, black and blue patches have begun to spread over his body. How shall I put it ? The evening breeze through the wide open windows is not enough to make the air fit to breathe. Poor humanity! Can this one be saved? The dressing done, I could see him alone but for a couple of minutes.
Probably---I am not sure, being unwilling to tire him with useless questions---probably his story is the same as those of fifteen or twenty others who have come to us the last few days, and who, driven away from the hospital at Arras by the bombardment, have since lived in carts and farms, in trains and stations, until, at the end of their strength, they have been deposited on a platform to be taken away by some ambulance.
I don't say this as a reproach. It is war! and one can do nothing to prevent it. But, because it is what it is, cursèd be War!
Here is another, who arrived yesterday at two o'clock and who, I am told, is liable to a sudden increase of danger. To look at him you would not say so, and he insists on talking.
"I had been in the military hospital at Arras since the 4th October," he tells me ; "with a wound in my arm and my leg broken. Eventually, they bombarded us everyday; a doctor, a sister and a nurse were struck by splinters of shell ; at the civil hospital twenty were killed. On Thursday night, we had to leave ; I was put with some others, into a cart ; that gives you a fine shaking. We got to an empty farm where there was nothing to eat or drink; we stopped there for two days, lying on straw. Then we took the train to the place where your car picked us up."
"That was at Aubervilliers, wasn't it ? How are your wounds ?"
"My arm is healed, and my leg was much better, but the journeys did for it. Now it is going on all right ; they have just fixed it."
I take this opportunity to encourage him by enlarging on the knowledge and devotion of our doctors and nurses. But for the moment he can think of only one thing---the ending of the nightmare.
"Yes, indeed, you are well off here; you don't hear the guns now."
He did nothing but fight for the first two months, and since then, in the hospital, he could hear the never-ceasing noise of the fighting. La Bassée, the central point of this furious battle, is two and a half miles from Arras, and even on Arras itself the. shells fell in swarms.
"There was one that broke the glass partition close to me in the dressing-ward. A barrowful fell on to my bed."
I question the doctors; his leg, which was beginning to heal, will have to be amputated; and his neighbour, who had had the same unlucky experiences, will probably lose an arm which had been saved.
When we read in the papers that ambulances are fired on, this is what it means---not counting those who are again struck, or killed outright.
If faith did not shed its soothing radiance over all these miseries, and lift the veil of something better beyond, I know not how one's heart, unless it grew hard, could endure it all. But that Divine Consoler is there, holding out His arms to all those who mourn, pointing out to them the Heaven where God gives Himself as reward for the sacrifices, and where they will once more find with Him, never again to be separated, those they rightly loved. Thanks to that faith, if we are not, and ought not to be, exempt from suffering, at least let us not suffer, let us not weep, like those who have no hope.
It is that text of St. Paul's that, this morning, at the Mass of the Dead, I expounded to my dear congregation, as numerous as yesterday's, and even more devout. I had left around the altar the flowers, of sober hues, of yesterday's Feast-day, with the wish that their fragrance might supplement the meaning of the black vestments I was wearing, and show that death, side by side with its mournful aspects, more frequent now than ever, possesses, too, others, very sweet, very beautiful, even splendid.
And it came into my head to describe the ceremony of the Souvenir Français, as it was celebrated in the Cemetery at Metz on the 7th September, 1871, in the presence of forty thousand Lorrainers met together for the first time after the annexation ; and I quoted the address of Mgr. Dupont des Loges, which, amidst indescribable emotion, ended with this same text, full of Christian as well as patriotic sentiment: "That you be not sorrowful, even as others who have no hope."
Six o'clock in the evening. I have once more seen proof of the strength of religious sentiment this evening when I went again to see a Breton Reservist who was to receive Communion on Sunday, and who, I was told, had been greatly exhausted by constant hæmorrhage.
When I asked him how he was, he answered calmly :
"It's going badly; I feel I am going to die."
I questioned the nurse, who did not think there was immediate danger.
So I tried to reassure him.
"No," he answered, still quite calmly; "I know quite well that I am going to die."
"And if it were so, you are a Christian."
"I am not afraid of death."
I proposed to him then that he should receive at once the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, that he had intended to receive next Sunday.
"So that no grace may be wanting to you, we will add Extreme Unction between the two, and then I will leave you in the company of our Lord."
"Yes, I shall be very glad."
His acts of thanksgiving over, he asked the nurse to read him three letters he had just received from his family. Kind as our American ladies are and so well up in our language, they were not accustomed to the style of writing he confided to them, so I offered to take their place, and I read out loud the letters from his sisters and one from his uncle. If the grammar did not count for much, in nobility of mind, in greatness of soul, in faith, in simplicity, they equalled the best that have been published.
One of the sisters wrote from Nantes to tell him that the mother and uncle, who had been to see him, had had a good journey back.
"They would have liked to give us better news of your health. But could it be expected ? We must not lose courage. Le Bon Dieu is trying us, but will not forsake us. We share in your sufferings, and hope that in a few more days you will be better. Don't tire yourself by writing to us; when you feel able, just put a word into the nurse's letters."
A sister who had remained in the village expressed, a little more awkwardly, very similar sentiments, and added that she would much like to see him : "I assure you that if I were accustomed to travel, I would start quite by myself only the distance is so great." And in a postscript: "I forgot to tell you that you must not be too much troubled about us, for André (the farm-hand) is not taken ; he is put on half-pay and is staying on with us."
The uncle, who had come to see him, writes: "I send you just a word to tell you that we got back safely. They were all waiting impatiently for me; I gave news of you to the family. I wish I could have said that you were getting on well, but how could I ? I did like you, I told them everything at once. Well, your sisters at H---- thanked me and preferred my telling them the truth at once. The only thing they long for is to have you with them as soon as possible. My dear Joseph, up to now you have been very brave, you have suffered much calmly and with resignation. That is well. Le Bon Dieu is asking a great sacrifice, it is true, but in His mercy He will grant you graces greater than you think of."
Then follow details about his sisters and the farm life, then tidings of the young fellows of the district, and the letter ends thus : "Come, dear Joseph, take courage ; I shall not forget you in my daily prayers. When you feel able, let me have a few words, it will be a great pleasure to me to have news of you. But don't tire yourself by writing to me. Give my respects to the kind nurse who seems so. good to you and to the other good medical officers, who look so kind."
Nothing is altered in these extracts but the spelling; the story is given verbatim, and, most certainly, stands in no need of correction.
It was ten o'clock when I left my patient, already a little drowsy, his mind and heart filled full of his God and his family, dreaming of his place at Church and his place at home.
"To-morrow then! " I had said to him a few minutes earlier.
"I don't know if I shall be here," he answered.
And, emboldened by his serene faith, I added with a smile: "After all, if you wake up in the presence of the good God, there'll be no great harm done. It will be as good as being here."
And he answered me with a "yes " I shall not forget. If he dies, my good Breton peasant, no doubt I shall pray for him as I have promised, but still more shall I pray to him for myself and those I love.
When I left him, I went and knelt down in the upper gallery of our Chapel. It was well, in the great silence of the middle of the night, to end there the Feast of the Dead.
My father, my sister, my grandparents, my friends, those whom I had attended in their agony---especially during these last two months---I recommended them all to the infinite mercy of Christ, the Judge and Saviour hidden in the tabernacle, His Divine presence quietly shown by the symbolic shining amidst the darkness of a little lamp.
Opposite me, against the great windows giving on the street the wind shook the branches of the trees, and autumn leaves, distinct because less dense, knocked upon the panes like a swarm of suppliant souls.
I have found my Breton's faith in two wounded men from the East, one from Mouzon in the Ardennes, the other from Belfort.
Wounded is not the word; mutilated is what one ought to call it, so wretched is the state of their poor bodies, or rather of what is left of them. One can't really wish for their recovery, when one thinks of the life they will have to lead. Their martyrdom, impossible to describe and which they accept with the patience of saints, will soon open to them an eternity of light and Divine happiness.
I have not yet given them Extreme Unction; but, before being taken into the operating-theatre, they both went to confession and received the Eucharist in admirable dispositions.
They are men of about forty. My poor twenty-year old patient with gangrene, still more surely condemned to death, it seems, can't resign himself as they do. I was able to persuade him to confess and communicate yesterday because of the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, but I recognized that there was no question of anything more. I saw him again this evening at nine o'clock, clinging more and more to the belief that he would recover, and unable to endure the splendour of the Great Vision.
A little ray of sunshine has shone through the misty atmosphere of these days. In the middle of the afternoon a magnificent present arrived : "From the City of Paris; the last flowers from Bagatelle."
And, in a big wicker basket, the old gardeners brought in sixteen magnificent bunches of roses, freshly-cut autumn roses of sweet, delicate, and exquisite fragrance.
It was a charming idea of M. L. C., the superintendent of our staff of nurses, that the distributing of the bouquets by wards was not made till after the two gardeners had carried the whole basketful through them all.
Chacun en a sa part, et tous l'ont tout entier. Each one has his share, and every one has the whole.
Called at one o'clock in the morning to a patient who is dying without regaining consciousness, I take the opportunity of seeing my young gangrene patient again. The conversation is very amiable, and the idea of receiving the Sacrament for the Sick is about to be agreed to, when an imprudent word from a nurse who does not understand the nuances of our tongue, brings forth an astonished refusal and makes me decide to beat a final retreat. There must be no more question of it, and I reassure the patient before leaving him, promising only to pray for him at Mass. As soon as it is said I return. He has of his own accord said his morning prayers. I thank God for this good inclination, and don't risk jeopardizing it by asking for more than His grace seems to offer.
At nine o'clock the parents arrive. At first alarmed at the change in him they are re-assured by seeing how little he is suffering, and soon leave him, as they suppose, to rest. When at two o'clock they come back, suddenly sent for, their child is dead. Their grief is awful; the father controls himself, but the mother cries aloud. They are taken to the Chapel, and I am sent for.
The poor woman who was wandering up and down with outstretched arms, rushes towards me and declares that it can't be; it isn't possible that her son is dead---a boy like that, so healthy, so handsome, so amiable; she wants me to re-assure her, to say that I agree with her. My silence and the tears that come into my eyes, only increase her lamentations, and nothing can calm her.
"But what will become of us ? He was all we had!"
Nothing can appease her, neither my words of Christian hope nor anything the father endeavours to say. For a moment she is interested in the account I give of the pious dispositions of the poor boy, of his Communion yesterday and his prayers this morning; but she speedily falls again into a frenzy, and I suggest to the husband to give her something to do, to make a diversion in some way or other, all the more, I add, because I am obliged to leave them for a funeral.
She hear s that word of mine.
"I won't have him taken away from me! You're not going to bury him at once !"
I gently explain to her that no one is thinking of such a thing, and that, on the contrary, I am going to take her to those who will let her see her child again. And, in fact, we go to the office, and then I go down in haste to begin the funeral service for another.
On my return I hear that they saw their son such as death had made him, and that, hearing the cries of the mother, three other women, already upset by visiting their own wounded, and by the sight of the funeral, had fallen down in a faint.
One coffin is carried away while another is being closed; a mother, a wife, who have just seen son or husband seriously hurt, as they return from the ward, come across a funeral procession; parents themselves lamenting, hear lamentations issuing from the chamber of the dead. That is what one sees of the War in a hospital!
To recover somewhat from the sight of the dying, the dead, the afflicted families, one has but to talk with the wounded themselves. They must be very low indeed before they complain or lose their good humour; some there are that keep to the very last their soldier-like spirit, their Christian equanimity.
Yesterday morning it was an adjutant through whose palate and cheeks a bullet had gone, who welcomed me even more cheerfully than the rest, and who, in spite of the difficulty of expressing himself, managed to make me understand that he was a priest and had even celebrated Mass two days before he was wounded.
And merrily he pulled out of his military notebook for my edification a celebret of the Bishopric of Moulins, in which I read that he was vicaire at Saint-Pierre de M----, a celebret to be kept as a relic, with its blood-stained edges. He can't receive Communion yet---he can hardly manage even to drink---but he can walk and already came to Mass this morning. Let us hope he will soon help me as my assistant. His success would be certain.
This afternoon I heard the story of a Reservist, who came in two days ago. There is something tragic in its simplicity.
"My Company left its trenches to make an attack last Thursday, 9th October, at nine o'clock at night. It had to retire, broken up by machine-guns. I was left there with one broken leg and a bullet through the other, as well as a bullet in my back."
" Were you alone ?"
"No; there were two of us; the other's dead, I think. I spent the night where I lay, five or six yards from an empty trench. The next day my Company came back and I thought I was saved ; but it failed again; half of my comrades were wounded or killed and the Germans took the rest. Because of the bullets and the shells, I had dragged myself into the empty trench. It was Friday morning; I remained there till Sunday evening with nothing to drink nor to eat, and I could not stir for the state of my leg.
"It was between the two firing-lines about 50 metres from the Germans, and 200 metres from the French line. My trench was higher on the German side and lower on the French, so that they caught sight of me on the Sunday. About four o'clock, a sergeant came. 'What are you doing there he said to me.
"'I'm waiting for death,' I answered.
"That was all I was thinking about. I hadn't been able to do any dressing, nor anything ; and I had bled so much that the trench was full of blood. The sergeant went back and sent two of the Engineers to fetch me about eight o'clock in the evening. Then they sent a message to the infirmary at Fontenoy, and I was taken there on a stretcher. I spent two days in the hospital, and then the train brought me to Aubervilliers."
Deaths in the night; dying this morning, and among them, supremely saddening, a refusal of the Sacraments. God alone knows; God alone is judge, and I leave it in His hands; but it is hard all the same. Happily it is an exception, and a very rare exception.
I would rather let my memory dwell on the new gangrenous patient brought in yesterday. Arriving in the morning in a state of frightful emaciation, in the afternoon he became swollen up with gas from his feet to his neck, and soon up to his cheeks and even his eyes.
In spite of what is drawn off by tubes into a receptacle half full of water, the swelling increases and death is near. Already unconscious, he receives absolution and Extreme Unction. But here he is once more conscious, growing calm and smiling at the priest. He accepts my suggestions with docility, and joyfully receives anew the Divine forgiveness. Then he falls back into a sleep we all think must be his last. But, this morning, I find him better; while his soul is still bright with the grace received, his poor body, the swelling gone, resumes a human shape.
What a happiness it would be for him and for me if, the ill lessening, I might soon bring him the visit, the Communion, of Our Lord, and if he made a complete recovery ! Don't you see how impossible it is not to love them ?
You ought to have seen the five Zouaves who came in this morning!
Two of them have legs, and one an arm, broken; the fourth had a bullet through his lung; the fifth a shoulder shattered by an explosive bullet, leaving a hole as big as a fist.
It is three days since they were wounded. They were hardly out of the car, and were still lying on stretchers in our hall, before each was trying to outrival the other in the spirit and gaiety with which the story was told of the fine fight where "we got this" ; the retaking of the Farm at Metz, on Monday the 2nd, on the stroke of midnight.
They still laugh over the fright they gave the Boches. "As soon as they catch sight of the Zouaves, they throw away their rifles, calling out: 'Kamarades.' I had the pleasure of spitting one. . . . Three of us took thirty of them. For one that surrenders there are ten that follow suit."
When I went to see them again this afternoon, I found one in a room where he runs no risk of losing his spirits. Three Englishmen were singing merrily to the applause of a Tunisian and four Frenchmen. One of these and an Englishman were occupied in knitting while they laughed; the nurse had taught them. It is a good amusement, which I prefer to cards, draughts, puzzles or patience. It is not taken to enough yet ; up to now there are not more than twenty who go in for it, almost all English. Quite contrary to the idea the French had of them before seeing them close, the English are remarkable for their animation.
Perhaps because of the ills we endure nearer at hand, we can hardly---as is natural---go further than resignation and deliberate courage ; but they go as far as gaiety.
Who is this young officer, laughing as he walks about, a borrowed képi unblushingly stuck over one ear ? An English lieutenant. Who are those soldiers who are jumping along on their crutches or running on their wooden leg in the corridor ? English again.
And those who are singing with much gesticulation, laughing aloud and trying to make the others laugh ? Always English, unless by chance they be Tunisians or Negroes. Assuredly not Frenchmen.
La Bruyère said mournfully that one must laugh before being happy, on pain of dying without having laughed. We shall once again know happiness and once again we shall laugh; now it is no longer possible. More serious than we are in practical matters, the English are perhaps less so in their inner depths. There is something in them of the ingenuous child, and, as some one has said---assuredly not to belittle them---of the "splendid savage."(12) Above. all, their minds, no less than their characters, are possessed by an inexhaustible optimism.
They always believe they will succeed; they believe it so firmly that they do everything needed for that end, and, in fact, succeed.
They will give in this War another proof of it.
When I ask them how they are, they must be actually dying if they don't answer, " Getting on nicely," or even, "getting on splendidly."
This is a dialogue of yesterday, with a man who had had a limb amputated.
"How are you this morning?
"I'm getting on splendidly."
"Have you any news from home ?"
"A letter from my mother."
"Does she know your leg has been cut off ?"
"Yes; she thanks God, like me, that badly wounded as I am, my life was saved."
My Breton of the other evening, who was going on well the last two days, is on the point of death. I had wondered if having for a moment believed himself restored to health, would make resignation more difficult for him. Thanks be to God, it is not so.
I reminded him of the beautiful state into which grace had put his soul.
"I have not changed," he answered simply.
And his twice-accepted sacrifice will make for him a twofold more glorious entrance into Heaven.
Providence has acted like a mother in increasing, in proportion to his merit, his portion of eternal happiness.
Life on earth has no other end but that ; nothing in it counts but what helps on in us the growth of grace, a larger participation in the Divine Life. Why should we cling to the rest, which will soon fail us ? Why seek riches, honours, pleasures, which not only do not last, but may lead us away from the real good ? Uncertainty of existence, nothingness of all that is not God, everything shows it to me, everything proclaims it to me since the outbreak of this War, and especially here. Every day the lesson obtrudes itself upon me with greater might, as around me the sufferings, the agonies, the cruel farewells accumulate.
Voices of wounds, voices of death and voices of mourning, I believed I had understood you. Not well enough yet; yesterday, it was closer by that I heard you. . . .
Table of Contents