The Great War followed soldiers home. British war poets Siegfreid Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met in 1917 while both were patients at Craiglockhart undergoing therapy for shell shock. Sassoon’s poem “Survivors” describes the mental sufferings of soldiers who could not forget the war:
|French victim of shell shock reacts to officer's cap|
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
What the British referred to as shell shock (the term originated in World War I), the French named variously as obusite (from the word for artillery shell), commotional syndrome, war neurosis, or battle hypnosis. Some French physicians simply labeled the condition hysteria, a term with a long history that “also served to humiliate soldiers.”* French soldiers suffering from the trauma of the war faced an additional challenge:
Mental illness was still too closely tied to degenerates and drunks. While an amputee could easily be touted as a hero, a chronically confused soldier was not a model veteran…. The mentally alienated veterans sequestered in asylums were considered les morts vivants—‘the living dead.’ They were survivors of the war, but they were as good as dead to their families who saw them rarely and could no longer count on them for financial or emotional support….Even those who escaped institutionalization were seen to inhabit a realm that was somewhere short of truly living.**
Marcel Sauvage was nearly nineteen when the war interrupted his medical studies in Paris. Serving as a stretcher bearer at the Somme, Sauvage was seriously injured and gassed while recovering the wounded. A French newspaper commended his courage, describing him as a “stretcher bearer of absolute devotion” (brancardier d’un dévouement absolu).† Sauvage’s war poems were written between 1916 and 1920; his poem “Recall-Up” (Rappel) depicts memories that tortured many of the veterans of the First World War. The poem’s title carries a double meaning, suggesting the act of remembering as well as that of summoning the troops (in French, battre le rappel).
Suppose, all at once,
Blood were to bead
And walls and hangings
Suppose, in the night, all at once
The lamps bled,
Lights like wounds?
Or your rugs swelled and
Or your rugs swelled and
Exploded, like bellies of dead horses?
Suppose the violins
The tears of the men,
The last refrain of the men
With exploded skulls across every plain on the globe?
Suppose your diamonds, your bright diamonds,
Now were only eyes
All round you, in the night,
All at once?
What would you tell of life
To a skeleton, suddenly there,
Its only mark
A Military Cross?
--Marcel Sauvage, translated by Ian Higgins††
The poem begins by inviting readers to imagine or dream—“Suppose”— but the visions that follow lead on a journey into madness. Spreading out from the trenches, the war has polluted the very sanctity of home. Blood wells up from drawing room furniture and drips from curtains and walls; lamps bleed “like wounds,” and rugs bloat like the carcasses of dead horses until they explode under the internal pressure. Domestic objects of comfort and beauty are transformed into hallucinations of horror, and even the glitter of diamonds shifts to reveal glowing eyes of madness that stare out from the dark.
Sound is also distorted, as the music of violins sobs with the last refrain of men dying horribly, their skulls exploded by machine gun fire, shrapnel, and shell. In the poem’s final chilling image, we stand before the skeleton of a dead French soldier who stands bone-bare, wearing only his medal of bravery, the Croix de Guerre. What can we tell him of life, we who have inhabited the haunted minds of les morts vivants—‘the living dead’?
In 1929, Sauvage published Le Premier Homme Que J’ai Tué (The First Man I Killed). The book recalls how at the age of twenty, a young soldier thrusts his bayonet into the body of a German soldier and watches him die. For many of the soldiers of the Great War, the battles continued to rage long after the Armistice was declared and the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Theirs was a war that never truly ended.
*Gregory M. Thomas, Treating the Trauma of the Great War: Soldiers, Civilians, and Psychiatry in France 1914-1940, Louisiana State University Press, 2009, pp. 20-21.
** Thomas, Treating the Trauma, pp. 125-126.
†Bulletin des Ecrivains de 1914-1915-1916-1917, June 1917, p. 2.
††Many thanks to Ian Higgins for generously discussing his translation of the poem and for granting permission to include it on this blog.