The Soul of Fighting France
Some Spiritual Experiences And War-Time Superstitions
By Nina Larrey Duryea
[Harper's Magazine, September 1918]
Germany has prosecuted this war for material profit by force of intellect, highly developed along scientific lines, but utterly devoid of spiritual co-operation. The mentality of her masses has been permitted to reach only the point of comprehension without initiative, and they have remained outside that magic circle where the finer powers of the soul give counsel and balance, raising men above the level of clever brutes. Germany's ambition was to do evil well; and this she has accomplished with astuteness and far-reaching efficiency, enabling her people to play their atrocious parts without revolt or shame.
But in France it is the soul which dominates her martyrdom. Her highly developed intellectuality is undisputed. Bismarck himself said that France was the only civilized nation; but her civilization is a secondary factor in her indomitable force. The spirit, with its loftier and finer perceptions, its power to endure, its indifference to material necessities, is defeating German intellectuality. Never, in the history of man, has the superior force of the soul been so clearly exemplified.
All religions are an expression of faith, though dogma through the ages has dimmed its purity. But this war has cleared the spiritual vision in France, and beauties of the soul, once dim and evasive, have become real and near, lending the individual a dignity and poise which renders life a privilege and death merely a natural and kindly deliverance from an inadequate body.
Under conditions which permit death so free a hand, living has gained an impetus unknown before, because of the nobility of the purpose animating all men. It has enabled them to surmount every disaster and to survive, whereas in peace natural forces would have succumbed. France, having sacrificed every material thing which makes life possible, lives on, calm, strong, her spirit walking with God above that bloody arena where civilization welters breast to breast with German kultur.
This flowering of the soul of France affects different classes in different ways, but one common result is evident—a greater intimacy, not only between men of all classes, but a greater intimacy with their own souls. Living for an ideal in constant proximity to the next world, each man feels a certain new intimacy with God. His religion means more to him, but its forms he has learned to do without if necessity compels. A poilu, when asked how he did without a priest for confession at the front, replied: "Ah, madame, these things arrange themselves. If there is no priest at hand, I confess directly to the good God. And I have come to love the intimacy." He voiced the general trend. He had become more intimate with God and incidentally with his own soul.
Among the peasant class superstition retains its place, but that also has undergone a change. The people are becoming dimly aware of forces which the more educated classes include in their vocabulary on psychology. The future state is no longer a simple matter of two conditions, good or evil; for both life and death have become more complex. Fear of the latter has disappeared and the poilu, lying in a shell-crater under bursting shells, thinks less of hell than of heaven; less of the devil's horns, hoofs, and tail than of angels affectionately disposed toward him, awaiting to escort his soul to Paradise. But the poilu's conception of Paradise has also undergone a change. Eternity is no longer compassed by an abyss of horror, below and a realm of unending bliss above, for each man is inventing theories of his own, of course quite in keeping with the ethics of the Church. One hears on every side such expressions as "When I go on." Or, "Tell my wife that I shall remain near her, and to fear nothing." Or, "The good God would surely not take me so far away that I could not watch the battle and know the result."
The writer, assisted by a one-legged hero in a weather-stained uniform, was caring for a lonely grave in the Somme. He had survived many Hun onslaughts; his wife was a slave in Germany, his home a blackened ruin, and his children, God only knew where. He contemplated the rough cross with a smile.
"Madame, never believe that such as he are dead. No! they live, and not far away yonder among the clouds, but here, close to us, part of us. Their souls mingle with our souls, lending them added strength. With each battalion of living men there is another, battalion of souls which lead us to victory. The Germans have not these battalions, for they have no souls. Therefore, when a Boche dies, his usefulness is ended. Our dead remain with us, making us greater than our natural selves. How do I know? Ah! men learn strange things on battle-fields. Does not every man know that the battle of the Marne was won by the dead?"
This astonishing statement is not unique. One meets such ideas couched in different terms in all classes. No less a personage than the military commandant of Roye affirmed that the battle of the Marne was a miracle. He was not particularly orthodox in his religious faith; rather he was a free thinker, but he assured me that no military explanation for the flight of the Hun was technically adequate. A high military official at Verdun last June affirmed this same belief, adding with conviction that the war would end suddenly by a similar manifestation of divine control. A professor of the Sorbonne remarked:
"When will this war end? I know not, but suddenly it will vanish as quickly as it burst upon us, for, God having taught France to endure sorrow with dignity and patience, German force will become as running water."
One black night at Rambervillers, where every chink of light was obliterated that taubes might not find their way, I was taken to the exact spot where the Teutonic hordes had turned and fled, within ten minutes' walk from that large, rich, and feebly defended town. Its terrified inhabitants had listened to that grim tread along the road. Suddenly there had been a silence, then a medley of sound, cries, sharp orders shouted in vain. And on that road, among meek apple-trees, there was panic, flight, unreasoning terror, as those mighty hosts fled back along the route they had come in wild disorder, regardless of all else save self-preservation from—what? They passed through villages like stampeding brutes, ignoring everything save flight. White faces peered from shuttered windows at faces no less blanched than their own as that dreaded enemy passed and vanished into the night.
I questioned a curé, a doctor, a shopman and his wife, and French soldiers, and they gave no other explanation for this phenomenon than that other than military forces were responsible. Later, I questioned a German prisoner, and his reply was to the effect that the devil had disguised himself as a general and thus brought disaster to the German troops.
The ordinary French poilu thinks little and reasons less, but his intuitions are highly developed. Hudson affirms that the gray matter of the brain is merely the result of a corporeal necessity, evolved by that necessity to serve the body only. He also affirms that a finer, inner intelligence is baffled and restricted by the intellect and remains too little utilized. Thus, the very absence of intellectual development leaves that force freer to act, as when a bird finds last year's nest across the world. Those saints who laid claim to the power of performing miracles were rarely highly educated, which perhaps explains why modern life produces so few saints. Free education, public libraries, telephones, and telegraphs open men's brains, but perhaps cloud the soul. In France it is largely the uneducated people who seem to live in greater intimacy with the other world. Their confidence in and respect for unseen powers is a force to be reckoned with. It lends them superhuman strength, renders them indomitable, as Germany has discovered to her cost; enables them to sacrifice everything they possess, all they love, endure martyrdom with equanimity, accept disaster with a large faith in ultimate readjustment, and accomplish these wonders with an utter modesty and simplicity which have won the admiration of the world—even of Germany. They have retained faith in the beneficent intentions of the Creator and bless Him as the giver of all good things, though their gardens may show only a crop of exploded shells and the roof of their home reposes in a water-filled cellar. The old and the young fill battle-scarred churches, and prayer and praise still ascend as incense to skies reddened by their burning villages.
At Baccarat in the Vosges back of the battle-line I attended vespers in the roofless, windowless cathedral. Snow drifted down on black-robed women, and among broken pillars soldiers knelt, preparing their souls for a possible death on the morrow. From the broken altar where no lights gleamed the intoning voice of the priest rose and fell, invoking aid and comfort for those heroic and bereft people. The very spirit of France brooded there, surmounting horror, ignoring booming guns, rising triumphant to heaven whose august dome roofed tragedy.
Among the broken masonry of a little square in the midst of which a crucifix remained unmarred, an old woman knelt at prayer. In outstretched hands she lifted to the pitiful Christ what, to her, represented all her remaining fortune—her last potato, which, when she rose, she laid at His feet. I asked her why, and she replied, "Alas! I have no more potatoes, and did not the Christ assure us that we should receive that for which we prayed?"
Needless to say she received, and who shall say that my wandering feet were not controlled by a beneficent force to prove her faith was not in vain?
But faith is not the prerogative of the poor and ignorant. The wise who thought their wisdom precluded belief have come also into a spiritual kingdom. A great surgeon whose name is well known to the world showed me through wards where men who had almost been blown to pieces lay in peace. No disinfectant burdened the air, no white faces were twisted with that familiar effort to suppress cries of agony which wring the heart more than sound. I asked the surgeon to show me through a microscope those minute organisms which moved through a gray void—the malignant in pursuit of the weaker which were hunted and killed, exactly as Germany has pursued and destroyed weaker nations.
I turned to him with discouragement, saying: "lt is war, monsieur. It pervades creation. It is evidently a natural law and humanity has no escape. Where is a benevolent Providence and where is the soul of man?"
One should remember this great scientist's reply. "Madame, before this war I was a confirmed questioner and doubter. With all my intellect I searched men's bodies for some proof of the existence of a soul, and found none. I fell back on two codes: that might is right and that the strongest law of the material world is that of self-preservation. Like Germany, I founded my creed upon such fallacies, omitting and denying any spiritual factor. But I learned better, for there is another law abroad in the world to-day which cannot be denied—a law as old as the creation of man. Tell me, madame, why are you here? Why am I here? Why are these wards filled with broken men who do not complain, though they have sacrificed every material thing for an idea? Why are fastidious women scrubbing filthy bodies in hospitals and sending those they love to die, while they and their children endure every hardship? Why does that bulwark of human flesh along our frontiers hold year after year at bay forces of superior physical strength? Why does the civilized world (which does not include Germany, who fights for profit) sacrifice every material thing, that unborn generations may possess happiness and peace? Why does humanity give up wealth with prodigality and personal ambitions sometimes dearer than life itself? Why does this gigantic struggle continue when peace might be had at the price of dishonor?
"Because, madame, there is a force stronger than any law of the material world—the force of the spirit! It controls man to-day; it controls destiny; it will decide that this sphere is not a mote spinning through space inhabited by a highly developed animal called man, but a theater of events pertaining to the spirit—a mighty force, sublime, part of God Himself. The first time I saw a battle-field cleaned up under the stars I seemed to see, above the pieces of rent human flesh, radiant angels trying to make me understand that the death of the body was a perfectly, unimportant and insignificant thing—that it was not how a man died, but what he died for, that mattered."
Thus, if we could eliminate as unimportant the destruction of the material and remember only the spiritual force at work, even war would lose its horror. Rather, one would realize that never in the history of the world has the soul's beauty and power been so predominant as when bodies are being blown to pieces on so vast a scale. Humanity is proving that "self-preservation" is not the law, but that the ideal is the law, and it is the soul which overcomes the former and upholds the latter.
Much has been said regarding the Angels of Mons and but little proved, though in these days it is unwise to deny that anything is possible, for the horizon of mental and spiritual research is ever widening. After all, man's five feeble, inadequate senses are pitiful material with which to comprehend the universe. What we do know is but the shadow of realities beyond our understanding, and yet we are prone to deny what we cannot understand. It is easier than to search for truth and flatters our self-love to build our knowledge on mythical hypotheses. As a certain general remarked when alluding to the Angels of Mons: felt is no more absurd to believe in such manifestations than for our forebears to have scoffed to derision the possibility of men walking upside down on the earth's surface and not falling off into space. Later the law of gravitation was discovered, which made a seeming miracle become a natural procedure. There are doubtless other laws which also may explain or reveal 'miracles.'"
There have sprung to notice in France so-called "prophets," not the charlatans who for five francs will foretell romantic or heroic events amid terra-cotta plush divans and Egyptian deities made in Manchester. These do indeed ply a lively trade, and crystal-gazing, palmistry, and astrology thrive on the credulous. The law winks at them, for, as an official explained, "they assist in keeping up the courage of the ignorant, because no fortune-teller would be so disinterestedly tactless as to prognosticate anything but fame, love, and fortune for value received."
But around camp-fires, amid the wreckage of villages, strange tales are told of prophecies come true. M—— lies directly on the firing-line, with Germans all about on surrounding hills. They hold another village not more than two miles away, within walking distance from where M—— is surely a temptation to shells. It is said that an old man, whose only daughter was carried off by a German officer, cursed him before his own life was forfeited and prophesied that not one rood farther would the Huns ever advance. He defied them with his last breath, saying that M—— would remain untaken and untouched within sight of German guns, and, although nearly three years have passed, this prophecy has held true. The fact remains that M—— remains intact and its inhabitants live their lives in apparent fearless security.
The writer climbed up on to No Man's Land from a trench near the town, with only a thick fog between it and the German lines across the sodden field. And yet, except for being forbidden to speak and being ordered to walk ten paces apart, that no massed shadow might betray our presence, no other precaution was taken save to don a gas-mask and steel helmet. The faith of the soldiery so effectively communicated itself that not even a pleasurable thrill of fear added to the piquancy of the situation, and we reached our goal conscious only of that silent line of incarnate hate which coils across those hills and valleys, apparently baffled and impotent.
In the evacuated region one heard of a woman of education who, eight months before America declared war, had lost her mind from too much suffering. It was said she possessed the gift of prophecy. One evening this distraught creature appeared in our garden where kultur had cut down trees, uprooted currant and rose bushes, and polluted the well. The woman wandered to and fro unmolested, as though searching for something, until she reached an American soldier who had neither moved nor spoken. Becoming aware of his presence, she asked, "Who are you?"
He saluted and replied, "An American soldier fighting for France."
"Perhaps you can help me," she said. "I had four sons. One lies beneath the snows of the Vosges; one rots on the bed of the sea; one fell from heaven, I know not where, and one—lay here, on my breast, soft and warm and—mine. But strange men came with spikes on their heads. There were great noises, raging, and cruel happenings. At last there was a vast noise and blackness. When it passed I saw my baby lying in pieces. Those men kicked the pieces and laughed and then put them in a box and took them away. Can you tell me where they are?"
Without waiting for a reply, the woman walked on, peering about for that box which held the baby she had loved. Again she approached the soldier and as, though for the first time, she said, "Who are you?" and again he made the same reply. Then a dawning comprehension seemed to pierce her brain and she touched his sleeve and groped over the national insignia of his rank as she reiterated the word—"American." Then she stepped backward and with upraised arms burst into a sort of biblical rhapsody:
"A great host shall come in numbers like the stars of heaven. The sea shall bear them. Justice shall be upon their banners and Liberty shall be their cry. Their tread shall shake the fortresses of the proud. The great King shall hide his face in fear and shall seek for safety and find none, for the curses of his people shall rise like flames about him and he shall walk in the blood of his children. Hasten the coming of that mighty host, 0 Lord God! Make clear their way. Let the shining presence of our glorious dead be about them, for they shall bring—peace!" She moved away, searching for her dead baby. It is to be remembered that she could have had no knowledge of America's entry into the war.
One is frequently asked whether France is tired of the war. In a sense she is, as is the whole world, including those who instigated it. But France has left others to prate of peace. Those waves of gray, helmeted men who twice have swept northern France, leaving a spume of blood on their inevitable retreat, have to reckon with a spiritual force which they neither understand nor consider at its proper value. Since war began, the French have usually been outnumbered, yet remain undefeated. When the Huns were speeding through Italy like a knife through cheese, it was the shabby poilu who was largely responsible for their arrest. When England's glorious army was being forced nearer and nearer the Channel, contesting every inch with sublime courage, again it was the poilu who stemmed the tide. His stocky body in its weather-stained, untidy uniform is ever the barrier against disaster. But that body is not the prime factor, but rather the spirit which animates it.
One finds running all through the armies of France the deeply rooted belief that they are chosen by God to kill and kill and kill Germans till that race is purged of its sin in its own blood. The poilu will count on his battered fingers the number of Huns he can account for, not with malice, but satisfaction, as of a duty well done. An officer will point out German graves from his saddle without a trace of vindictiveness as: "So many!" saying, "It is long, our task, but we have all the time there is to do it in." The French soldier, paid five cents per day "for the privilege of being blown into eternity, lives through the years of war in cold, mud, want, hunger, and finally dies with cheerful equanimity, absolutely certain that God will not count his sacrifices vain, but that later, just a little later, the great end shall be accomplished toward which the soldier did his part.
It is a common thing for these poilus to claim that they see visions, and very proud is the man who can recount his experience with the occult. In St. Dié sector the Christ is said to pass through the trenches the night before an attack. That sacred Wraith in trailing, luminous garments, a glory about Its head, bends here and there, touching men who smile in their sleep and awake convinced that their hour to die is near. And they arise and go forth under screaming shells with calm acceptance. Later in a first base hospital deep in some dugout, while a surgeon probes for a bit of metal in that mangled body, a feeble hand will wave protest and lips will plead: "Let me go in peace. The White Christ came for me last night." So well known is this superstition that a gaudily colored postcard is sold among the rear trenches, and many a woman has received one soon after the death of her husband or her son.
This apparent intimacy with spiritual powers gives the poilu dignity in his own estimation. He feels a bigger, stronger man than the Hun without a soul. In the Somme, the writer visited a number of cemeteries where the dead had rested in peace through many generations—until the Boches came. Then the tombs of the rich were blown open and the graves of the poor dug open that a wedding-ring or some trifle of value might be stolen. Those emptied graves gape to the sky their silent protest against German kultur.
The culture of France is of another order. Not a German grave in that region is untended. In my garden at Roye there were three graves of German officers beside two dead French soldiers, each and all edged with privet and each with its inscribed cross. I asked the old woman who cared for them if she felt no bitterness. She replied: "God and I think that a dead man has no nationality. Besides, madame, we who have souls may well pity those who have none. A dead German is dead and can do no more harm. Even the devil has no further use for him."
Therefore, when a Frenchman kills a German, it is as though he killed a rat or any other unclean pest, and he does it without rancor, but as speedily as may be, that the earth may be rid of that pest and become fit to live in. The poilu thinks little these days of Alsace and Lorraine, the lost coal-fields of France, indemnities, or political chicanery. The map of the world fails to interest him, and the government is a body which has his disapproval but little of his thought.
On a certain occasion an ex-apache, who as a soldier had attained a Croix de Guerre, remarked: "Break the law? La! La! La! Why not? They are made by men no better than I. But here at the front le bon Dieu is one's neighbor. One has to look sharp not to offend Him.
This spiritual evolution in France has a wider significance than merely awakened faith and mysticism. It is transforming the relationship between classes. At lunch one day Prince de L—y remarked, ruefully: "My valet has won the Legion d'Honneur while I have only the Croix de Guerre. How can I ever again ask him to black my boots?"
When a people is rising to heights where self is forgotten and pursuit of an ideal animates all classes, the result is an upheaval which will necessitate final readjustment. In France it is no longer what a man has, or what his ancestors were, but what the individual is. His soul is his principal asset, for the soul makes the man. Already one realizes that class distinctions are becoming vague; past prejudices, prerogatives, envy, bitterness are put aside in the spiritual largesse. Where once each man's inner life—which, after all, is the real life—-evaded comprehension, present understanding has swept barriers away.
The peasant has discovered that the man of fashion who feared a draught and wore galoshes can grow hard and brown and a good sort amid the grime and danger of trench life. Vermin, soaked straw for a bed, water-clogged boots, and a coating of mud appear to agree with the fine gentleman whose hands are no longer manicured and who cheerfully rinses his tin plate. The peasant learns, to his astonishment, that monsieur may be as homesick for his wife and baby as he himself and that he has the same standards of life in many ways.
On the other hand, monsieur finds Jacques a delightful comrade, something of a philosopher, invariably witty, and sharing his own gallantry for the ladies. Monsieur speaks to his former servant as mon enfant, using "thee" and "thou" affectionately, and can, at a pinch, replace with secular consolation an absent priest, speeding Jacques on his upward way to heaven with tearful affection, embraces, and respect.
They have fought side by side, prayed together before a common shrine, perhaps huddled together in some shell-hole below German search-lights, confiding strange experiences with death, their neighborliness to God and His angels, with the mutual hope that the Madonna may keep her eye on their children, whose own mother, being with the Huns, can no longer care for them.
German disciplinarians would shudder to see monsieur lift Jacques to his saddle while he walked beside him, or to see an officer slap a poilu on the back and chaff him on his latest flirtation. German propriety would wince to hear Jacques allude to his great marechal as "Papa Joffre." It illustrates a significant difference between French ethics and German kultur that when a decoration is bestowed in France an embrace goes with it, and not one kiss, but two from the lips of the general on the weather-beaten cheeks of the soldier, doubtless well scrubbed for the occasion. Can the civilized world fancy Hindenburg kissing a German peasant? France has no self-consciousness when its soul honors the great soul of an individual.
In the Somme the French government loaned five Boche prisoners for heavy work. One of them, Fritz, aged twenty-eight, was uncommonly intelligent and even perused Daudet during the hour of rest among the few bushes not uprooted in the garden, where trees had been cut down and the well polluted. It is forbidden to hold converse with prisoners, but a "lenient commandant permitted discourse with Fritz, whose confidence was gradually won by hot coffee, sugar, and American chewing-gum.
One day he was asked, "What do you really think of your Kaiser?"
An odd expression twisted his features and slowly he turned his face to the right and—spat! once.
That reply not being quite clear, he was asked, "What do you think of your Crown-Prince?"
Slowly he turned his head to the left and—spat! twice.
I replied: "Ah, now I understand, Fritz! We are of the same opinion. Tell me what you really think of the situation.''
It was like taking a cork out of a bottle of champagne. He ran to peep over the wall for listeners, and then, casting aside his sullen stolidity as though a garment which had too long disguised and encumbered the actual man, Fritz spoke, fists in air, with vigor. "Madame, in yonder prison across your alley there are three hundred and forty-eight men. Not one of us knew till we came to France that we were the only army trained by a system of personal insult and abuse. We did not know that there were officers who led their men over the top. We are driven, with an automatic at our backs. I, twenty-eight years old, have had to stand at salute while a boy officer slapped one side of my face and then the other, kicking me from his presence as though I was indeed the swine he called me, because the edge of my cuff was soiled. Perhaps madame fancies me a traitor to my country. No! I am no traitor to her, but I curse her methods and those in power who grind us to the dust that they may rule. They will cause the ruin of my beloved fatherland where no man is free save those at the top. My comrades and I speak much of the future, for now we hope to live, being prisoners; but not many of us will ever return to the fatherland unless there are changes there. You ask what we will do? I know not, but we desire to go to America."
And so the soul of Germany is not quite dead, for it has been quickened by the soul of France. Among the sand-dunes of Brittany superstition finds fertile soil. Bretons are less French than any other class in France, having retained their own language, customs, and beliefs. They have as little fear of death as have pagans, though they are deeply religious. A cemetery is a place where children play, and on fête-days it is the meeting-place for gossips and swains. Relatives go always once a week with flowers to deck the graves and tidy the wee shrines above them as they do their own homes.
A Breton apparently is not entirely convinced that the dead has really departed to another world, but behaves as though the lost one were still near, hearing, seeing, and interested in his former associates. A discreet watcher will hear a widow say in a pleasant, conversational tone, while-tending the grave:
"Was the rain cold on thee last night? I thought of thee when I lay with the children in our snug bed behind the lattice. Perhaps thou wouldst care to hear that Jean has twins. That has proved a happy marriage, though Marie had no other dot than her good looks. Also, the apple crop is of an excellence and next week we begin to make cider. Au revoir, my well-beloved. Sleep well, for all goes well and I have money in my stocking."
With a tender pat on the cross she will return home to her hard life, consoled by this chat with her husband.
But this war has brought forth a new crop of superstitions which do not make for comfort. A wounded poilu brought home a German helmet with vast pride and pleasure, and was chagrined when his spouse would have none of it. Was not that helmet impregnated with the diabolical powers of a child of Satan? "Keep it in the house? Jamais de la vie! If a bit of St. Cecilia's robe could work good, a Boche helmet would work evil. The offending relic was filled with stones and sunk into the sea, and the cure was then called to purify the house.
German prisoners mend the roads of Brittany and are decently treated by their captors, but civilians avoid them as though they were an infectious and deadly pest. Children stare at them from afar with fascinated horror, and women who have washed for them suffer boycott. The writer found a peasant, bitterly poor, who was splitting a chair into kindling-wood because a Hun had sat in it.
No civilian dares to nurse a Boche, but the Sisters, once again back in their domain after years of exile, soothe the last moments of a dying Hun.
These convent hospitals, whose windows boast no glass, because taxation in certain departments is gauged by windows with glass, have rarely any heat save pale sunshine throughout the winter. Mist and rain drift through the windows on pitiful pallets with straw mattresses, and for months in the beginning of the war no chloroform softened pain in those long, stone-paved, stone-walled wards. Moonlight is believed to purify, and heal, and often wounds are opened to its beneficent influence.
Old age in Brittany is revered, both from natural sentiment and from a selfish desire to placate those who soon may "tell tales to God." Money is put aside for elaborate funerals that the dead may arrive in Paradise in a good humor. These people rarely see a newspaper and glean their knowledge of war solely from rare letters. The sea is believed to be a sort of barometer of affairs at the front, and when it beats in fury along that dramatic coast the Bretons cross themselves and tremble, for does that not mean the Huns are again disturbing God's world?
It is a healthy sign of a broadening of spiritual brotherhood that the East Indians are treated with respect and consideration. Their peculiar dignity of bearing coupled with their native refinement makes them popular. As an officer remarked, "The sun never saw a vulgar Indian." They have every facility given them to follow their religious rites and customs; cooking their own food untouched by polluting Christian hands. Their dead are buried in their own graveyards, faces to the east, while the living have been promised that those sacred inclosures shall never be disturbed. Now and then one sees an Indian, lithe as a panther, peering in at the open door of a cathedral with wistful interest. As Krishna said many hundreds of years ago, "What matters the road if it leads to God?"
The spiritual development of children in France is a sadder theme. Happiness is the prerogative of childhood, the basis of its development, without which the soul of a child can no more flower than a rose without sunshine. But children have been born throughout France into poverty, fear, want, and suffering. In those devastated districts, or huddled in vast refugees' sheds in Paris, children have forgotten how to laugh and have not learned to play. Often their lives have unfolded in damp cellars or bomb-proof shelters, their sleep broken by shells and their days one long, paralyzing terror. Save for those who remain to love them, humanity is represented by cruel men with spiked helmets whose words were curses and whose gestures were blows. A tactless word might mean death; and darkness, deep in the earth, was better than smoked-filled streets above, where moving armies, explosions, and torn bodies made hell on earth. Often their mothers were carried off by those brutish men in carts, pleading in vain against separation from the huddled, frightened little ones who held out arms to them in pitiful faith that mothers could always prevent their being left alone in the big, uncomprehended world. But childish loneliness remained unconsoled, and, like leaves in a storm, they drifted out upon that strange void where dangers lurked and fear became their daily portion.
The curé, if not shot, endeavored to tell them of a Christ all love, of a God all-powerful, of saints and angels who watched over them to whom they must still pray. Doubtless for a time their prayers did mount above the reek of din and dust while bombs made debris of their homes. Doubtless they watched for miracles for which they prayed, but which were never wrought, so far as they could see, in their favor. Dim memories of happier times faded. The Holy Mother and her Baby became to them only a shattered image on a ruined altar. The rustle of angels' wings, for which their mother had bade them listen when sleepy eyes closed, was lost in the crashing of their world. Germany's spiked heel trod faith in such beauties out of memory and spirit, for nowhere in that ruined world could they find love, peace, and security. To them the Christ became a dim memory coupled with cathedral aisles, kneeling figures under a solemn nave, and that mystical, pricking silence which stilled laughter, yet brought a strange joy.
And simpler faiths also faded. All the sweet imagery of childhood vanished away. Shell-craters replaced the magic fairy-ring; bluebells no longer rang for fairy weddings. Days were long when there were no longer dolls to love and dress, and to "play soldier" might bring death, as it did in Belgium to a six-year-old boy. St. Nicholas never came to blackened hearths. He, too, had vanished into that happy past when there had been a father who could spoil and chide and a tender mother who tied a ribbon in one's hair for Mass.
Among Germany's heavy responsibilities, none is weightier than the dwarfed and stunted souls of the children of France. If their faith is stronger in the devil than in the loving God, the Hun is to blame. If ambition, fearless honesty, self-respect, and mental and physical vigor are absent, Germany should pay. Let America, while pitying and consoling those bereft victims of kultur, look to it that Germany does pay. When being shown through a ruined village by a small boy dangling between crutches (thanks to a German shell) we paused before the shattered altar of the little church. He was dressed in American gifts and vastly proud of them, and was repaying by much agreeability.
"Madame, the curé used to tell me that all good things came from le bon Dieu who lived yonder in that shrine. But madame sees that the Boches have destroyed God's house, so that He can no longer with comfort live there. Now, as madame has brought me from America these boots of great beauty, this worthy shirt, and incomparable trousers, may it not be that God has gone to America to take up His residence there?"
Throughout those scarred battlefields, among rusted barbed wire and crumbling trenches, Nature is doing her best to soften the grim reminders of War. One's attention is frequently called to the unusual size of poppies here and there, and one is assured that beneath always lies a soldier of France. Near by poppies are smaller, feebler, less poignantly aflame. The popular belief affirms that the red blood of that hero's body has risen triumphant from death in beauty and vigor, through Nature's eternal resurrection. Gallant hearts might beat no more, lips be silent, limbs no longer spring to assault; but up through the sod comes their hearts' blood spilled for France.
It has been said that architecture records the spiritual history of nations. Perhaps the greatest tragedy as felt by France is the destruction of her architectural treasures. Through the centuries of semi-civilization, though war despoiled her, barbarians spared sacred edifices. Not until German kultur crossed her frontiers did they suffer.
Rheims! It was the core of the soul of France. Its airy traceries were wrought with prayer. Faith made its foundation, heroic deeds paved that glorious have, and through its jeweled windows heaven itself colored its mighty pillars. Humanity has the hope that God will judge it by its aspirations rather than by its deeds, but the aspiration of spiritual France became existent and materialized in Rheims. An aroma of holiness breathes from every stone, and wreathed about its shrine are all the harmonies.
When the first German shell struck Rheims a shudder shook the very soul of France as though the throne of God had been smitten by violence. As other blasphemous shells destroyed its angels, shattered its saints, and made mock of the Christ high above its altar, a desire for vengeance was born. The Hun had blundered again, for rage is a more potent force than patriotism when for a spiritual ideal. Each explosion reached the outer rim of France. The rich and the poor, the simple and the wise, became bound by a closer bond. Every man's sword took a keener edge, women shed fewer tears for those who died to punish the iconoclast, and children took comfort in remembering that God was stronger than the Hun. Thus the soul of France sprang to newer life.
Germany forged a new weapon to be turned against herself when she destroyed Rheims, and her future generations will doubtless blush for that monument to their own barbarism. Should nothing remain of Rheims but memory, it will endure as though still echoing the clear young voice of Jeanne d'Arc. Men who scarce recall the faith of their childhood refound it in one up-leaping shock of amazement that there lived minds so ignoble. Those to whom love of country means hate of her enemies have discovered a stronger sentiment in reverence. Those unaffected by beauty suddenly found themselves its worshiper, and he who lived only for the present realized that the past as its maker.
Because the past produced such glories as Rheims a new ambition has awakened in France to make the present no less a marvel, and France is accomplishing this miracle, not by work of human hands, but by the vigor of its soul, for where the stones of Rheims were inarticulate save for what they implied, so the martyrdom of France is a triumphant chant of ultimate victory through the indomitable power of her own soul.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald