Above the Battle/Chapter 5



Once more I address myself to our friends the enemy. But this time I shall attempt no discussion, for discussion is impossible with those who avow that they do not seek for but possess the truth. For the moment there is no spiritual force that can pierce the thick wall of certitude by which Germany is barricaded against the light of day—the terrible certitude, the pharisaical satisfaction which pervades the monstrous letter of a Court preacher who glorifies God for having made him impeccable, irreproachable, and pure, himself, his emperor, his ministers, his army, and his race; and who rejoices beforehand in his "holy wrath" at the destruction of all who do not think as he thinks.[1]

True, I am very far from thinking that this monument of anti-Christian pride represents the spirit of the better part of Germany. I know how many noble hearts, moderate, affectionate, incapable of doing evil and almost of conceiving it, go to make up her moral strength; amongst them are friends that I shall never cease to esteem. I know how many intrepid minds work ceaselessly in German science for the conquest of the truth. But I see on the one hand these good people so over-confident, so tractable, with their eyes shut, ignorant of the facts and unwilling to recognise anything but what it is the pleasure of their Government that they shall know; and on the other, the clearest minds of Germany, historians and savants, trained for the criticism of texts, basing their conviction on documents which all emanate from one alone of the parties concerned, and by way of peremptory proof referring us to the ex-parte affirmations of their Emperor, and of their Chancellor, like well-behaved scholars, whose only argument is Magister dixit. What hope remains of convincing such people that there exists a truth beyond that master, and that in addition to his White Book we have in our hands books of every kind and of every colour, whose testimony demands the attention of an impartial judge? But do they so much as know of their existence, and does the master allow his class to handle the manuals of his enemies? Our disagreement is not only as regards the facts of the case; it is due to difference in mind itself. Between the spirit of Germany to-day and that of the rest of Europe there is no longer a point of contact. We speak to them of Humanity; they reply with Uebermensch, Uebervolk, and it goes without saying that they themselves are the Uebervolk. Germany seems to be overcome by a morbid exaltation, a collective madness, for which there is no remedy but time. According to the view of medical experts in analogous cases such forms of madness develop rapidly, and are suddenly followed by profound depression. We can then but wait, and in the meantime defend ourselves to the best of our ability from the madness of Ajax.

Certainly Ajax has given us plenty of work to do. Look at the ruins around us! We may bring aid to the victims yet how little can we achieve? In the eternal struggle between good and evil the scales are not evenly balanced. We need a century to re-create what one day can destroy. The fury of madness, on the other hand, endures only for a day; patient labour is our lot throughout the years. It knows no pause, even in those hours when the world seems at an end. The vine-growers of Champagne gather in their vintage though the bombs of the rival armies explode around them—and we, too, can do our share! There is work for all who find themselves outside the battle. Especially for those who still can write, it seems to me that there should be something better to do than to brandish a pen dipped in blood and seated at their tables to cry "Kill! Kill!" I hate the war, but even more do I hate those who glorify it without taking part. What would we say of officers who marched behind their men? The noblest role of those who follow in the rear is to pick up their friends who fall, and to bear in mind even during the battle those fair words so often forgotten—Inter Arma Caritas.

Amidst all the misery which every man of feeling can do his share to relieve, let us recall the fate of the prisoner of war. But knowing that Germany to-day blushes at her former sentimentality, I carefully refrain from appealing to her pity by whinings, as they call them, about the destruction of Louvain and Rheims. "War is war." Granted!—then it is natural that it drags in its train thousands of prisoners, officers and men.

For the moment I shall say only a word about these, in order to comfort as far as possible the families who are searching for them, and are so anxious about their fate. On both sides hateful rumours circulate only too easily, rumours given currency by an unscrupulous press, rumours which would have us believe that the most elementary laws of humanity are trampled under foot by the enemy. Only the other day an Austrian friend wrote to me, maddened by the lies of some paper or other, to beg me to help the German wounded in France, who are left without any aid. And have I not heard or read the same unworthy fears expressed by Frenchmen as regards their wounded, who are said to be maltreated in Germany? But it is all a lie—on both sides; and those of us whose task it is to receive the true information from either camp must affirm the contrary. Speaking generally (for in so many thousands of cases one cannot, of course, be sure that there will not here and there be individual exceptions) this war, whose actual conduct has provoked a degree of harshness which our knowledge of previous wars in the West would not have allowed us to expect, is by contrast less cruel to all those—prisoners and wounded—who are put out of the battle line.

The letters that we receive and documents already published especially an interesting account which appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of October 18th, written by Dr. Schneeli, who had just been visiting the hospitals and prisoners' camps in Germany—show that in that country efforts are being made to reconcile the ideals of humanity with the exigencies of war. They make it clear that there is no difference between the care bestowed by the Germans on their own wounded and those of the enemy, and that friendly relations exist between the prisoners and their guards, who all share the same food.

I could wish that a similar inquiry might be made and published on the camps where German prisoners are concentrated in France. In the meantime accounts which reach me from individuals disclose a similar situation,[2] and there is plenty of reliable evidence that in Germany and France alike the wounded of both countries are living in terms of friendship. There are even soldiers who refuse to have their wounds dressed or receive their rations before their comrades the enemy have received similar attention. And who knows if it is not perhaps in the ranks of the contending armies that the feelings of national hatred are least violent? For there one learns to appreciate the courage of one's adversaries, since the same sufferings are common to all, and since where all energy is directed towards action there is none left for personal animosity. It is amongst those who are not actively engaged that there is developed the harsh and implacable brand of hatred, of which certain intellectuals provide terrible examples.

The moral situation of the military prisoner is therefore not so overwhelming as might be imagined, and his lot, sad as it is, is less to be pitied than that of another class of prisoners of

whom I shall speak later. The feeling of duty accomplished, the memory of the struggle, glorifies his misfortune in his own eyes, and even in those of the enemy. He is not totally abandoned to the foe; international conventions protect him; the Red Cross watches over him, and it is possible to discover where he is and to come to his assistance.

In this work the admirable Agence internationale des prisonniers de guerre, most providentially established some two months after the commencement of the war, has caused the name of Geneva to be known and blessed in the most remote corners of France and Germany. It only needs, like Providence itself, to gain the co-operation of those over whose interests it watches, that is to say, of the States concerned which have been somewhat slow in supplying the lists we need. Under the ægis of the International Committee of the Red Cross, with M. Gustave Ador as president and M. Max Dollfus as director, some 300 voluntary workers, drawn from all classes of society, are assisting in its charitable work. More than 15,000 letters a day pass through its hands. It daily transmits about 7,000 letters between prisoners and their families, and is responsible for the safe dispatch of some 4,000 francs on an average. The precise information which it is able to communicate was very meagre at the start, but soon increased, until a thousand cases could be dealt with in the course of a single day; and this number rapidly increased with the arrival of more complete lists from the Governments concerned.

This renewal of intercourse between a prisoner and his family is not the only beneficial result of our organisation. Its peaceful work, its impartial knowledge of the actual facts in the belligerent countries, contribute to modify the hatred which wild stories have exasperated, and to reveal what remains of humanity in the most envenomed enemy. It can also draw the attention of the different Governments, or at least of the general public, to cases where a speedy understanding would be in the interest of both parties—as, for instance, in the exchange of men who are so seriously wounded, that they will be quite unable to take further part in the war, and whom it is useless and inhuman to keep languishing far from their friends. Finally, it can effectively direct public generosity, which often hesitates for want of guidance. It can, for instance, point out to neutral countries, who are so ungrudging in their anxiety to aid the sufferings of the combatants, where help is most urgently needed—for the wounded prisoners, convalescents leaving the hospital without linen or boots, and with no claims on the enemy for further support.[3]

Instead of showering gifts (which, no doubt, are never superfluous) on the armies who can and should be supported by the peoples for whom they are fighting, neutrals might well reserve the greater part of their generosity for those who are most destitute, those whose need is the greatest, for they are feeble, broken, and alone.

But there is another class of prisoners on whom I would like interest to be specially concentrated, for their situation is far more precarious, unprotected as they are by any international convention. These are the civil prisoners. They are one of the innovations of this unbridled war, which seems to have set itself to violate all the rights of humanity. In former wars it was only a question of a few hostages arrested here and there as a guarantee of good faith for the pledge of some conquered town. Never until now had one heard of populations taken bodily into captivity on the model of ancient conquests—a custom actively revived since the beginning of this war. Such a contingency not having been foreseen, no conventions existed to regulate the situation in the laws of war, if the words have any meaning. And as it would have been awkward to formulate fresh laws in the midst of the struggle, it seemed more simple to overlook them. It has been as though these unfortunates did not exist.

But they do exist, and in thousands. Their number seems about equal on both sides. Which of the belligerents took the initiative in these captures? At present certainty is impossible. It seems clear that in the second half of July Germany ordered the arrest of a number of Alsatian civilians. To this France replied the day after her mobilisation by declaring prisoners Germans and Austrians then to be found on her territory. The casting of this vast net was followed by similar action in Germany and Austria, though, perhaps, with less result. The conquest of Belgium and the invasion of the North of France brought about a redoubling of these measures aggravated by violence. The Germans, on retiring after their defeat on the Marne, methodically made a clean sweep in the towns and villages of Picardy and Flanders of all persons capable of bearing arms—500 men at Douai, at Amiens 1,800 summoned before the citadel on some apparently harmless pretext, and carried off without even the possibility of returning for a change of clothes.

In many cases the captures had not even the excuse of military utility. In the village of Sompuis (Marne) on September 10th, the Saxons seized a helpless village priest of seventy-three, scarcely able to walk, and five old men of ages from sixty to seventy, one of whom was lame, and took them away on foot. Elsewhere women and children are taken, happy if they can remain together. Here a husband, mad with grief, searches for his wife and son aged three, who have disappeared since the Germans passed through Quièvrechain (Nord). There it is a mother and her children taken by the French near Guebwiller; the children were sent back, but not the mother. A French captain, wounded by the bursting of a shell, saw his wife also wounded by German bullets at Nomêny (Meurthe-et-Moselle); since when she has disappeared, taken he does not know where. An old peasant woman of sixty-three is taken away from her husband near Villers-aux-Vents (Meuse) by a company of Germans. A child of sixteen is seized at its mother's house at Mulhouse.

Such action shows an utter lack of human feeling, and is almost more absurd than cruel. It really appears as though people had been deliberately separated from all who were dearest to them; and of those who have so disappeared no trace remains by which they can at present be found. I am not speaking of Belgium; there the silence is as of the grave. Of what is taking place there nothing has been heard in the outer world for three months. Are the villages and towns still in existence? I have before me letters from parents (in some cases belonging to neutral nations) begging for news of their children of twelve or eight years of age, detained in Belgium since hostilities broke out. I have even found in the lists of these vanished children—doubtless prisoners of war—youthful citizens of four and two years of age. Are we to understand that they too could have been mobilised?

We see the anguish of the survivors. Imagine the distress of those who have disappeared, deprived of money or the means of obtaining any from their families. What misery is revealed in the first letters received from such families interned in France or Germany! A mother whose little boy is ill, although rich cannot procure any money. Another, with two children, requests us to warn her family that if after the war, nothing more is heard of her, it will mean that she has died of hunger. These cries of misery seemed in the noise of battle to fall on deaf ears for the first two months. The Red Cross itself, absorbed in its immense task, reserved all its help for the military prisoners, and the Governments seemed to show a superb disdain for their unfortunate citizens. Of what use are such as cannot serve! Yet these are the most innocent victims of this war. They have not taken part in it, and nothing had prepared them for such calamities.

Fortunately a man of generous sympathies (he will not forgive me for publishing his name), Dr. Ferrière, was touched by the misfortunes of these outcasts of the war. With a tenacity as patient as it was passionate, he set himself to construct in the swarming hive of Red Cross workers a special department to deal with their distress. Refusing to be discouraged by the innumerable difficulties and the remote chances of success, he persevered, limiting himself at first to drawing up lists of the missing, and trying to inspire confidence in their anxious friends. He then attempted by every means in his power to discover the place of internment, and to re-establish communications between relations and friends. What joy when one can announce to a family that the son or the father has been found! Every one of us at our table—for I, too, had the honour of sharing in the work—rejoices as though he were a member of that family. And as luck would have it the first letter of this kind which I had to write was to comfort some good people in my own little town in the Nivernais.

Great progress has already been made. The most pressing needs have obtained a hearing. The Governments have agreed to liberate women, children under seventeen, and men over sixty. Repatriation began on October 23rd through the Bureau of Berne, created by the Federal Council. It remains, if not to deliver the others (we cannot count on this before the end of the war), at any rate to put them in communication with their families. In such cases, as in many others, more can be expected from the charitable efforts of private individuals than from Governments. The friends with whom we communicated in Germany or Austria as in France have replied with enthusiasm, all showing a generous desire to take part in our work. It is such questions transcending national pride which reveal the underlying fellowship of the nations which are tearing each other to pieces, and the sacrilegious folly of war. How friends and enemies are drawn together in the face of common suffering which the efforts of all humanity would hardly suffice to alleviate!

When after three months of fratricidal struggle one has felt the calming influence of this wide human sympathy, and turns once more to the field of strife, the rasping cries of hate in the press inspire only horror and pity. What object have they in view? They wish to punish crimes and are a crime in themselves; for murderous words are the seeds of future murder. In the diseased organism of a fevered Europe everything vibrates and reverberates without end. Every word, every action, arouses reprisals. Him who fans hatred, hatred flares up to consume. Heroes of officialdom! bullies of the press! the blows which you deal very often reach your own people, little though you think it—your soldiers, your prisoners, delivered into the hands of the enemy. They answer for the harm which you have done, and you escape the danger.

We cannot stop the war, but we can make it less bitter. There are medicines for the body. We need medicines for the soul, to dress the wounds of hatred and vengeance by which the world is being poisoned. We who write—let that be our task. And as the Red Cross pursues its work of mercy in the midst of the combat, like the bees of Holy Writ that made their honey in the jaws of the lion, let us try to support its efforts. Let our thoughts follow the ambulances that gather up the wounded on the field of battle. May Notre-Dame la Misère lay on the brow of raging Europe her stern but succouring hand. May she open the eyes of these peoples, blinded by pride, and show them that they are but poor human flocks, equal in the face of suffering; suffering at all times so great that there is no reason to add to the burden.

Journal de Genève, October 30, 1914.

  1. Open letter of Dr. Ernst Dryander, the First Court Preacher and Vice-President of the Higher Ecclesiastical Council, to C. E. Babut, Pastor of Nimes, September 15, 1914 (published in l'Essor for the 10th October and the Journal de Genève, 18th October).
  2. The newspapers of both countries give publicity only to prejudiced stories unfavourable to the enemy. One would imagine that they devote themselves to collecting only the worst cases, in order to preserve the atmosphere of hatred; and those to which they give predominance are often doubtful and always exceptional. No mention is made of anything that would tell in a contrary direction of prisoners who are grateful for their treatment, as in the letters which we have to transmit to their families—in which, for example, a German civil prisoner speaks of a pleasant walk, or of sea bathing, he has been allowed to enjoy. I have even come across the case of an entomologist who is peacefully absorbed in his researches, and profiting by his enforced sojourn in the South of France to complete his collection of insects.
  3. On this point, I would echo the appeal in the article cited above, from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.