Story type: Essay
When I speak of this little soldier who fell a few days ago, up there in the Vosges, it is not that I may mourn him publicly. It behoves us in these days to mourn our dead in secret. Personal sorrows no longer count; and we must learn how to suppress them in the presence of that greater sorrow which extends over all the world, the particular sorrow of the mothers who are setting us an example of the most heroic silence that human suffering has been taught to observe since suffering first visited womankind. For the admirable silence of the mothers is one of the great and striking lessons of this war. Amid that tragic and sublime silence no regret dare make itself heard.
But, though my grief remains dumb, my admiration can still raise its voice; and in speaking of this young soldier, who had not reached man’s estate and who died as the bravest of men, I speak of all his brothers-in-arms and hail thousands like him in his name, which name becomes a great and glorious symbol; for at this time, when a prodigious wave of unselfishness and courage, surging up from the very depths of the human race, uplifts the men who are fighting and giving their lives for its future, they all resemble one another in the same perfection.
My friend Raymond Bon was a sergeant in the 27th battalion of the Chasseurs Alpins. He left for the front in August, 1914, with the other recruits of the 1915 class, which means that he was hardly twenty years of age; and he won his stripes on the battlefield, after being twice named in dispatches. The second time was on returning from a murderous assault at Thann, in Upper Alsace, in which he had greatly distinguished himself. I quote the exact words:
“Corporal Bon is mentioned in the orders of the battalion for his gallantry under fire and his indifference to danger. When the leader of his section was killed, Bon took command, rushed to the front and, shouting to his men to follow him, gave proofs of the greatest initiative and courage. He was the first in the enemy’s trenches with his section.”
That day he was promoted to sergeant and complimented by the general in front of his battalion in the following terms:
“This is the second time, my friend, that I am told what you have done; next time you shall be told what I have done.”
To-day men tell of his death, but also of the undying glory which death alone confers.
“At Hartmannsviller,” writes one of Bon’s comrades, “according to his captain’s story, our friend’s company was held in reserve, waiting to support the attack delivered by a regiment of infantry. The order came to support and reinforce the attack. The company at once leapt from the trenches, with the captain and Bon at its head. There was a salvo of artillery; and the bursting of a great shell caught Raymond almost full in the body, smashing his right leg and his chest. The captain was hit in the right hand. Notwithstanding his horrible wounds, Bon did not lose consciousness; he was able to stammer out a few words and to press the hand which the captain gave him. In less than two minutes all was over.”
And the captain adds:
“Always ready to sacrifice himself; a brave among the brave.”
These are modest and yet glorious details: modest because they are so very common, because they are constantly being repeated in their noble monotony and springing up from every side, numberless as the essential actions of our daily life; and glorious because before this war they seemed so rare and almost legendary and incomprehensible.
Raymond Bon was a child of the south, of that Provence which, day after day, is shedding torrents of its blood to wipe out slanders which we can no longer remember without turning pale with anger and indignation. He was born at Avignon, the old city of the Popes and the cicadas, where men have louder accents and lighter hearts than elsewhere. He was a little boxing-master, who earned a livelihood at Nice for himself and his destitute parents by giving lessons in the noble art of self-defence with the good, ever-ready weapons which nature has bestowed upon us. He boasted no other education than that which a lad picks up at the primary school; but, almost illiterate as he was, he possessed all the refinement, the innate culture, the unconscious delicacy and tact, the kindliness of speech and feeling and the beautiful heart of that comely race whose foremost sons seem to be purified and spiritualized from their first childish steps by the most radiant sunshine in the world. One would say that they were directly related to those exquisite ephebes of ancient Greece who sprang into existence ready to understand all things and to experience life’s purest emotions before they themselves had lived. My reason for insisting upon the point is that, in this respect above all, he represented thousands and thousands of young men from that wonderful region where all the best and most lovable qualities of mankind lie hidden all around beneath the indifferent surface of everyday existence, only awaiting a favourable occasion to blossom into astonishing flowers of grace and generosity and heroism.
When I heard that he had gone to the front, I felt a melancholy certainty that I should never set eyes on him again. He was of those whose fate there is no mistaking. He was one of those predestined heroes whose courage marks them out beforehand for death and laurels. I but too well knew his eagerness, his unbounded sincerity and single-mindedness and his great heart: that admirable heart devoid of all caution or ulterior motive or calculation, that heart turned, at all times and with all its might, purely towards honour and duty. He was bound to be in the trenches and in the bayonet-charge the same man that I had so often seen in the ring, taking risks from the start, taking them wholesale, unremittingly, blindly and cheerfully and always ready with his pleasant smile, like that of a shy child, at any time to face whatever giant might have challenged him.
I remember that one day in the year 1914, he was training Georges Carpentier, who was to meet some negro heavy-weight or other. The disproportion in the strength of the two men struck my friends and me as rather alarming; and we took the champion of the world aside and begged him not to hit too hard and to spare our little instructor as much as he could. That good fellow Carpentier, who is full of chivalrous gentleness, promised to do what we asked; but after the first round he came back to us and said:
“I can’t let him off just as lightly as I should like. The little chap is too plucky and too sensitive; and I have to hit out in earnest. Besides, he overheard you and what he says is, ‘Never mind what the gentlemen say; they are much too considerate and are always afraid of my getting smashed up. There’s no fear of that. You go for me hard, else we sha’n’t be doing good work.’”
“Good work.” That is evidently what he did down at the front and what all of them there are doing. It is indeed fine work, the most glorious that a man can perform, to die like that for a cause whose triumph he will not behold, for benefits which he does not reap and which will accrue solely to his fellow-men whom he will never see again. For, apart from those benefits, like so many other men, like almost all the others, he had nothing to gain and nothing to lose by this war. All that he possessed in the world was the strength of his two arms; and that strength finds a country everywhere.
But we are no longer concerned with the personal and immediate interests that guide nearly all the actions of everyday life. A loftier ideal has visited men’s minds and occupies them wholly; and the least prepared, the humblest, the minds that seemed to understand hardly anything of the existence that came before the tremendous trial, now feel it and live it as thoroughly and with the same infinite ampleness as do those minds which thought themselves alone capable of grasping it, of considering it from above or contemplating it from every side. Never did a sheer ideal sink so deeply into so many hearts or abide there for so long without wavering or faltering. And therefore, beyond a doubt, somewhere on high, in the heart of the unknown powers that rule us, there is being piled up at this moment the most wonderful treasure of immaterial forces that man has ever possessed, one upon which he will draw until the end of time; for in that superhuman treasure-house nothing is lost and we are still living day by day on the virtues stored in it long centuries ago by the heroes of Greece and Rome, by the saints and martyrs of the primitive Church and by the flower of mediaeval chivalry.