The monument (English)
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Eugène Varlot came from Paris. He hadn’t seen his family once in eighteen months of war as his leave was always cancelled at the last minute. A passionate writer, he kept a diary describing all the fighting he witnessed on the Marne (in the department of Champagne). In January 1920 his notebooks were found by the police at his home on Place du Maroc (in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris). They were investigating the accidental death of Varlot and his woman friend when their car exploded in Rue d’Aubervilliers.
I shall never forget the 27th April 1917, and not only because it was my twentieth birthday. That morning, it was lives that were being blown out rather than candles. All week our officers had been ordering assault after assault against a hill bristling with barbed wire and thick with machine guns nests. When we weren’t scurrying along in a hail of lead and brass, we were taking pot shots at the clouds of crows and armies of rats that were gobbling up the corpses and attacking the wounded we no longer had the strength to carry back to the trenches. Reinforcements were long overdue, and it was always the same lot who had to risk their necks. For nearly a year now, Griffon and I had formed a miraculous pair. He was a real live wire from Saint-Quentin whose family lived right in the middle of the occupied zone, thirty kilometres behind the German trenches. Nothing could touch us : neither bullets, bombs or gas. Not a wound, not even a scratch. We went unscathed through the hail of shells. Sometimes we said we would stay dry even in a storm. Except that for a week or so I could see that something was wrong. I tried to worm it out of him, but the assaults came so thick and fast that we never had time to string a few words together. On the 27th, the offensive was launched at five in the morning. Three hours later, we were wading back to our lines through the foul mud full of blood and guts. I’d never left so many comrades behind before. It really was the road to hell. When we finally clambered back into the communication trench, another squad was getting ready to go over the top and get cut to shreds on the plain. The sentry stared at us as if we were ghosts ;
"Where have you two been ?"
"At the cinema."
It was the kind of thing Griffon would say, but this time it was me talking. I had run out of tobacco and a corporal gave me a bent ready-rolled that I straightened out with the tips of my fingers. I had just lit up when an officer flicked it out of my lips.
"Don’t start smoking now, we’re about to attack".
Before I’d had time to tell him that we’d only just got back he put his whistle in his mouth and drew his pistol to signal the start of the massacre. I grabbed the sticky wood of the ladder and threw myself forward, bellowing like an ox to hold back the fear. Griffon was just behind me. We covered about fifty meters, bent double, without the Germans firing. In front of us, the first to go over the top were working on the barbed wire when the shells started raining down. High calibre. It took us a while to realise that they were being fired from behind. I took Griffon by the arm to make him slide into the new crater made by a 150. There were already two tenants, soldiers from the Aubergez battalion who greeted us with a joke.
"Think yourselves lucky, we’re honouring France : we’re going to be reduced to pulp by good old home-made shells."
According to the legends and lore of the trenches, a shell never makes its home in another shell’s nest. So all we had to do was grin and bear it, and pray that if the Germans decided to do some shelling too, their explosive casseroles would conform to the same legends and lore as our own. Griffon moved away, his back to the ground. He was so sulky that I didn’t feel like going to him. He took a piece of paper out of his pocket and a pencil. He licked its tip with his tongue and started writing, as if there was nothing else happening. Then the thunder moved away. I tapped one of the fellows from Aubergez on the shoulder.
"Sounds like they’ve lengthened their aim... Time to go home."
I turned towards Griffon. My cry died in my throat. He was squatting there, his gun stuck between his legs, the barrel in his mouth, his arm outstretched towards the trigger. The explosion hard torn away half his face. I squelched over to him, but he was already dead. I picked up the bloodstained envelope he had taken the time to seal and which was sticking out from under his body. I slipped it in my pocket. Then I took my gun and started mashing his head with the butt. The two other soldiers started shouting at me, saying I was mad, that they’d shoot. And then, just to remind us that legends are all a load of tripe, a 110-calibre shell landed in the middle of our shelter. My last memory of that battle is of their two mutilated bodies being thrown up in the air. I woke up centuries later, behind the lines, in an emergency unit set up beside a canal between Courmelois and Villers-Marmery. Apparently there was nothing wrong with me, but at first I could not even blink, swallow a mouthful or say or word without setting off a migraine that only laudanum could soothe. As soon as I felt better, I volunteered to help the surgeon, a haughty chap who liked to be called "Monsieur le Comte". His operating table was even more deadly than front-line action under Nivelle. I gave in my notice on the pretext that I was having dizzy spells again when, on the afternoon of May 1st, he got his customers mixed up and cut off a young fellow’s good leg. The field hospital occupied the church, the village presbytery. An artilleryman who had been a pianist at the Concert Mayol was trying to re-educate his remaining fingers by playing chords on the harmonium stowed way in the chapel, and when I told him about the amputation, he started playing "La chanson de Craonne", and I sang along, bellowing out the forbidden words :
Goodbye life, goodbye love
Goodbye to all women.
It’s over now, and forever
With this wretched war
It’s in Craonne, on the plateau
That we’ll be cut to pieces ;
For we’re all condemned
We’re sacrificed men.
The ones with the money, they’ll be back,
It’s for them that we’re dying ;
But it’s over, for the squaddies
Will all go on strike
And it’ll be your turn, my fat sirs,
To climb up on the plateau ;
For if you want your war,
Pay with your own lives!
I had raised my fist in the white light filtering through the stained glass when the door opened to reveal the spattered apron of "Monsieur le Comte".
"It rather looks as if you’re better, Varlot... I see chaps who are a damn sight more messed up than you are who aren’t afraid to go back and fight on the front."
He disgusted me so much I couldn’t hold back my words.
"Except that today it’s all over, captain. The deliveries of canon fodder are going to dry up. Today is the first of May, time to rest our rifles."
The swine had not come alone. Alerted by the music for whose author, I am told, they were offering a reward of a million gold francs, he had brought three gendarmes. They pounced on us. First they threw us into a stable where we spent the night, our bellies empty. At dawn, surrounded by a platoon of young lads from the infantry, they took us to the front in a lorry. The pianist questioned the bluecoats and they confirmed that we were heading for the firing line. As for me, I said nothing, I knew what to expect. The Renault parked in the courtyard of a school whose playground had been blown up by a shell. A shattered cement pediment lay on the ground, and you could still read the words : "Ecole communale de Blérancourt". A dozen fellows as dirty as lice, their faces swollen and uniforms torn, waited in a classroom whose walls were decorated with maps of the Empire. They pushed us inside. The officers came along when the sun was at its zenith. Their masquerade didn’t last long. Six condemnations for armed rebellion in the face of the enemy, six sentences of ten years of forced labour, and acquittal for the man who had informed on his miserable comrades. These hors d’œuvres had given the colonel a good appetite, and the tribunal headed off to the mess. The Mayol pianist and I were for dessert. The soldiers dragged us behind the buildings. Three posts blackened by fire, ragged from the bullets, were standing two metres from the wall against which the children once used to bounce balls. The first three victims were ordered to get on their knees near the posts. They tied them by the wrists, put a black band on their eyes. Two of them refused the priest. No shouting, no crying. I lowered my head when the salvo mowed them down. The officer commanding the firing squad walked up to make sure the bodies were dead, then exactly the same scene was repeated. I stood there for a good while staring at the blackened posts. The middle one had a knot in the wood in the shape of a woman’s head, and the bullets had traced the shape of a heart in the one on the right. While the soldiers were removing the corpses, I managed to get back towards the wall to rub my bonds on a sharp edge. The plaited threads of rope gave way one by one and now I could move my wrists. My chance to slip away came when a formation of German aircraft flew by in pursuit of two French reconnaissance biplanes. The living had all looked up to the sky to encourage the tricolour markings and swear at the black crosses of Prussia. There was great joy when our anti-aircraft defences shattered the wing of an enemy plane which went into a nose dive and made a crash landing on the field by the school. The whole troop ran out to arrest the fallen angel. Free of my bonds, I moved across to the pianist with a sharpened stone in my hands.
"Move your wrists back, I’m going to cut the rope. Quick !"
"It’s no use. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire. I’m staying here. They’re not going to shoot us just for a song."
"What about them, what did they die for ? Just because they were tired ! You heard what they said, didn’t you ? Come on !"
His shoulders sagged.
"If that’s how it is, we may as well get it over with now. Do as you like, but you haven’t a hope in hell."
Outside, the soldiers from the firing squad had surrounded the wounded aviator. I crawled to a copse then ran through the open to a burnt-out barn. From there I made it to the shelter of a forest. I walked all day long, taking the north-west route around the front line. At nightfall, battle made the horizon glow red, but all the wind brought me was the muted echo of gunfire. I feel asleep in a boat untied from a pontoon that was too well lit by the moon. I secured it so badly that the wind was enough to set it loose. When the cold woke me up, in the early morning, they were speaking German on the bank. I let the boat drift for hours and I ended up heading towards the dark arches of a bridge. I got back on dry land. Peaceful countryside lay before me as far as the eye could see, and for the first time since so many months there were no uniforms. I waited until night time to move, in spite of the hunger gnawing at my belly. I knew that if the Germans caught me they would stick me up against one of their posts for espionage. And it was impossible to turn myself over to the French because for them I could only be a deserter, a traitor. I stole some food from a farm, deprived an old farmer of his hat and capacious coat that was airing itself by an oak while he turned over the earth. An awry signpost announced a town whose steeples and roofs could be seen on the horizon. "Saint-Quentin, 2 km" it said. I had never left Paris before the war, but I felt as if I knew Saint-Quentin as well as I knew the nineteenth because Griffon had filled my ears with the place on the days we weren’t attacking. Now I saw him again, in the shell hole, his face torn away by the bullet from his own gun. All the images flooded back and I remembered his skull shattering under the blows from my butt, and then the letter he was writing just before he topped himself. My left hand lifted up a flap of my coat, the right dived into my tunic and pulled out the envelope stained with blood and mud from the crater. I held it up to my eyes and read the address written in the violet ink of the pencil.
12, Rue Cravel
(to be delivered to her when all this is over)
As I entered the outskirts I completed my disguise with a big stick which I leant on to emphasise my hunchback walk. I avoided the main streets with the Flemish facades where large numbers of Prussian soldiers and officers were walking about. I decided I could trust a beggarwoman squatting outside the church. She knew I was masking my voice but that did not prevent her from explaining how to get to Rue Cravel via the quieter streets. Number 12 was a half-destroyed house whose only viable room was inhabited by an old woman. I tapped on the pane and made her start. She opened the door and looked me up and down, wrinkling her nose and lips.
"I’m looking for Madeleine Griffon. Is this the place ?"
"What do you want ?"
I opened the stolen coat, revealing my infantry uniform.
"I absolutely have to see her. It’s very important."
"How did you manage to get to us ? The place is crawling with Germans !"
"For God’s sake, call Madeleine Griffon quickly, or tell me where I can find her. It would take too long to explain everything."
The old women hesitated then gave me a new address, a hotel just off the main street.
"Be very careful my lad, it really is the Prussian quarter now. It’s pretty rowdy for much of the night. They say it only quietens down after three in the morning."
Before I left she handed me two potatoes and a small bottle of wine she fetched from her table. A convoy of lorries and harness teams were heading for the front as I walked through the centre in the opposite direction. The horseshoes slid on the stones of the sloping street. I had never seen our partners in slaughter as close as this. They were just like us, just as a drop of blood is like the next one forming on the same wound. The Hôtel du Commerce was on the corner of a triangular little place. Strains of Pianola music wafted out of the hall whenever a soldier opened the heavy door studded with brass nails. I hid in the darkness of a doorway to watch the comings and goings. Where I came from, they were still fighting : the murmur of distant permanent thunder was heard through the night. When day broke a damp fog was beginning to wrap itself round the buildings. It was a mixture of cold and a migraine with dizziness that finally forced me to cross the square and open the brass-studded door. I had just got into the overheated hall when a fit threw me to the floor. I thought I might be dreaming of paradise when two young woman dressed only in stockings and bras came running, picked me up and laid me on a perfumed bed after they had carried me up the stairs. I could hardly speak, and just had the strength to say "laudanum". I took a long swig of the stuff straight out of the bottle and the pain started to die down. A bit later I managed to articulate a few sentences.
"I’ve come to see Madeleine Griffon. Is she here ?"
One of the two girls who had heaved me up to the room, a small, curvy redhead with a freckled face, came to the bed. She had put a dressing gown over her bare shoulders.
"It can’t be true... Something terrible’s happened to René !"
I couldn’t find the words to tell her the truth, so I lied.
"He died like a hero, on the Chemin des Dames... His sacrifice saved the rest of the section... If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be here. I came all this way to pay my debt. You can be proud of him..."
I fumbled around in my pocket for the letter and held it out to her.
"He was always talking about you... Mélanie this, Mélanie that... Here, it’s for you." She trembled as she took it, looking fixedly at the brown stain on the envelope, then lifted the flap with her nail. Griffon’s last words wrung from her a cry that was every bit as terrible as the wailing of the mortally wounded in battle. She fell to the floor in convulsions and the other girl knelt down to calm her. I picked up the letter and read.
"My younger brother Bernard has managed to get a card over to this side of the battle. I know what you are up to. This is my last letter. I have decided to go away for ever. René Griffon, 27th April, 1917."
I took another gulp of Laudanum and left the Hôtel du Commerce without hiding, just like any ordinary customer. I walked through the town, stole a bicycle from a soldier who had leant it against the wall while he answered the call of nature. As I approached the front line, they started firing at me. I made no attempt to protect myself, all of a sudden I had seen too much, endured too much... But the time had not come for the bullet with my name on it ! The fog suddenly thickened, drowning the countryside. Shreds of mist pushed by a weak wind made human shapes that frayed on the torn tree trunks, the barbed wire and the posts stuck in the ridges. I managed to get through the last kilometres protected by this army of shadows, ghosts of all the friends who had died since they assassinated Jaurès.
On 8 February 1927, ten years after the surprising events related by Eugène Varlot in his notebooks, and seven years after his death in his burning car in the Rue d’Aubervilliers, the sculptor Christophe Palie won a competition to design and build a monument to the martyred village of Blérancourt. His task was also to commemorate the sacrifice of all the French, English, Canadian and American soldiers whose crosses whitened the hills of the Aisne. Innumerable bronze soldiers raised their silent rifles on the squares of France, too many cement-mantled widows comforted the wounded and closed the eyes of the dead on bas-reliefs. For Christophe Palie, these statues did not only commemorate, they soothed the trauma of the war, they diverted the pain, anaesthetised the despair. In his mind, its true task was to rise to the level of suffering endured by men, by the land. He could never forget the letter sent by his father a few days before his death, in June 1915, which their mother read to his sister and himself one night, in tears.
"The weather is superb and the sight is indescribable. Imagine the vast plateau without a single tree left on it, not the slightest blade of grass, the earth convulsed and blackened... thousands of French and Jerry corpses, shattered weapons, all kinds of debris. A leaden heat weighs over all this, the stench is atrocious and swarms of fat blue flies eddy around. All the time, big shells dig, and delve into this mass. You have to crawl for hours, make a rampart out of corpses."
Blérancourt was totally destroyed during the fighting of the spring and summer 1917. They fought with 310-calibre shells, with rifles, with bayonets, and even hand to hand, with stones. Each of its heaps of rubble had been conquered and conquered back several times a day, each stone of its one long street was a tomb. After the Armistice, the authorities decided that it would not be rebuilt and would remain a permanent symbol of human barbarity and folly. Here and there, small engraved brass plates recalled what had stood there before the cataclysm : "Bakery", "Post Office", "Farm", "Dairy", "Inn", "Municipal Laundry". The monument was to be set on the esplanade that once served the town hall.
Palie started looking for an archaic and symbolic form and for a material capable of expressing all the violence of the combat. Preceded by a shell disposal expert and followed by two men pulling a cart, he combed the nearby battlefields, walking along the trenches, going onto the shelters. His morbid harvest was piled up in the cart : barbed wire, helmets, guns, struts, shrapnel, mess kits, boots, belts... Every evening he unloaded his finds in a hastily prepared barn. He spent his nights trying to assemble these incongruous elements, bringing forth apocalyptic scenes that kept him awake until morning. Something told him that he should not use representations of the human body to scream out the torture that had been inflicted on it. He came on the idea of using heated and charred wood as the only material that could hold all the power and violence he was looking for. He laid down his gouge and chisel. The axe, saw and flame-thrower were his sculptor’s tools now. Black was the colour, the colour of all other colours. The jutting forms, with no inherent expressivity, caught his childhood obsessions and fears. And, at the same time, he saw them as images of the guilty men, the eternal killers, the ruthless sovereigns and tyrants. No arms, no legs, no gesticulation, no faces suggesting a life, a language : no, but knots, shakes, nervures telling of the time when the tree was a natural, effective element. Only splinters, cracks, burns and cuts to tell of ferocious mechanical attacks, of the chemistry of fire. He started searching for trunks, stakes, poles, pickets. One day, his wanderings took him to a forbidden zone where they had dug up mustard gas shells. He went in alone, pushing the cart. In the middle of a field crows were using the gutted frame of a German plane as a perch. Walls twenty centimetres high marked out the classrooms of Blérancourt village school. Digging around in the rubble, he pulled out three half-burnt stakes and took them back to his lair. They stand at the centre of his composition, as a metaphor of the trepalium, an instrument of torture made of three stakes, from which the word travail is derived. On 11 November, 1918, the tenth anniversary of the Armistice, the monument was inaugurated to the sound of the Marseillaise. Neither the officials, nor even the artist, ever knew that they were also paying homage to six poor men rounded up for a night of depression, and to a former pianist from the Concert Mayol shot for having played La Chanson de Craonne on an out-of-tune harmonium, in Courmelois.
11 November 1998
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