I Will Tell You About The Goodness Of God

From a letter of Eugène Lemercier, the French painter who fought and died in World War I.

February 22, 1945 [1st day in billet]

Dear beloved Mother,—I will tell you about the goodness of God, and the horror of these things. The heaviness of heart that weighed me down this month and a half past was for the coming anguish to be undergone in these last twenty days.

We reached the scene of action on the 17th. The preparation ceased to interest me; I was all expectation of the event. It broke out at three o’clock: the explosion of seven mines under the enemy’s trenches. It was like a distant thunder. Next, five hundred guns created the hell into which we leapt.

Night was coming on when we established ourselves in the positions we had taken. All that night I was actively at work for the security of our men, who had not suffered much. I had to cover great tracts, over which were scattered the wounded and the dead of both sides. My heart yearned over them, but I had nothing better than words to give them. In the morning we were driven, with serious loss, back to our previous positions, but in the evening we attacked again; we retook our whole advance; here again I did my duty. In my advance I got the sword of an officer who surrendered; after that I placed my men for guarding our ground. The captain ordered me to his side, and I gave him the plan of our position. He was telling me of his decision to have me mentioned, when he was killed before my eyes.

Briefly, under the frightful fire of those three days, I organised and kept going the work of supplying cartridges; in this job five of my men were wounded. Our losses are terrible; those of the enemy greater still. You cannot imagine, beloved mother, what man will do against man. For five days my shoes have been slippery with human brains, I have walked among lungs, among entrails. The men eat, what little they have to eat, at the side of the dead. Our regiment was heroic; we have no officers left. They all died as brave men. Two good friends—one of them a fine model of my own for one of my last pictures—are killed. That was one of the terrible incidents of the evening. A white body, splendid under the moon! I lay down near him. The beauty of things awoke again for me.

At last, after five days of horror that lost us twelve hundred men, we were ordered back from the scene of abomination.

The regiment has been mentioned in despatches. 

Dear mother, how shall I ever speak of the unspeakable things I have had to see? But how shall I ever tell of the certainties this tempest has made clear to me? Duty; effort.


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