What A Unique Night!

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

Christmas day, 1914

What a unique night!—night without parallel, in which beauty has triumphed, in which mankind, notwithstanding their delirium of slaughter, have proved the reality of their conscience.

During the intermittent bombardments a song has never ceased to rise from the whole line.

Opposite to us a most beautiful tenor was declaiming the enemy’s Christmas. Much farther off, beyond the ridges, where our lines begin again, the Marseillaise replied. The marvellous night lavished on us her stars and meteors. Hymns, hymns, from end to end.

It was the eternal longing for harmony, the indomitable claim for order and beauty and concord.

As for me, I cherished old memories in meditating on the sweetness of the Childhood of Christ. The freshness, the dewy youth fulness of this French music, were very moving to me. I remembered the celebrated Sommeil des Pèlerins and the shepherds’ chorus. A phrase which is sung by the Virgin thrilled me: ‘Le Seigneur, pour mon fils, a béni cet asile.’ The melody rang in my ears while I was in that little house, with its neighbour in flames, and itself given over to a precarious fate.

I thought of all happinesses bestowed; I thought that you were perhaps at this moment calling down a blessing upon my abode. The sky was so lovely that it seemed to smile favourably upon all petition; but what I want strength to ask for perpetually is consistent wisdom—wisdom which, human though it may be, is none the less safe from anything that may assail it.

The sun is flooding the country and yet I write by candle-light; now and then I go out into the back gardens to see the sun. All is light, peace falling from on high upon the deserted country.

I come back to our room, where the brass of the pretty Meusian beds and the carved wood of the cupboards shine in the half-light. All these things have suffered through the rough use the soldiers put them to, but we have real comfort here. We have found table-implements and a dinner-service, and for two days running we made chocolate in a soup-tureen. Luxury!

O dear mother, if God allows me the joy of returning, what youth will this extraordinary time have brought back to me! As I wrote to my friend P——, I lead the life of a child in the midst of people so simple that even my rudimentary existence is complicated in comparison with my surroundings.

Mother dear, the length of this war tries our power of passive will, but I feel that everything is coming out as I was able to foresee. I think that these long spells of inactivity will give repose to the intellectual machine. If I ever have the happiness of once more making use of mine, it is sure to take a little time to get moving again, but with what new vigour! My last work was one of pure thought, and my ambition, which all things justify, is to give a more plastic form to my thought as it develops.


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