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Pierre Mille


Those Who Stayed Behind

by Pierre Mille

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             I CAME across this by chance while I was seeking other news, news that interested me far more, that was nearer my heart and that never reached me. The wave of invasion swept down from the north and covered the land of Belgium and French Flanders, where dwelt my ancestors, and where I spent my childhood, which is full of memories for me, memories and friends, more than friends even, men and women of my own blood, who as I grow older become dearer to me. Then suddenly the wave ceased, the heroism of a people and the genius of some generals arrested it. It reached the point of which we know, and in spite of its most bloody efforts has gone no further. But it seems as if the enormous wave has frozen where it lies, has formed a wall of ice which only the springtime of France will thaw. And while we wait for this we know nothing, or next to nothing, of the death, life, suffering, hopes and anguish of those we love. " Next to nothing," did I say? That may be more cruel than the absolute nothingness of total ignorance.

             We know that our friends are there behind the wall of ice and iron, we know they are quite near us. They do all they can to give us news of them and we to receive the longed-for tidings. Now and then something creeps through, some rumour comes to our ever-listening, ever-impatient ears, but it is seldom what we want. It is not the friend or the brother who is speaking, but some stranger, who tells of things unknown to him. It is like a communication from the other world, a spirit-form, as it were, that evades you, disturbs your composure, and sometimes fills you with deep emotion.

             The episode I am about to relate filled me with emotion so deep and inexplicable that I could not define its cause, still less put it into words. In a flash it made me see a new and different aspect of war, as though other eyes had been opened in the soul of me, eyes that could see the hitherto unseen. Not dead and mutilated men, not murdered women and children, nor burning and devastated towns and villages. It was something more than that, and yet infinitely less, it was imponderable and dreadful.

             It was in a town of Flanders that I refrain from naming, probably because it was particularly dear to me. A refugee from this town came to my house and asked to speak to me. I questioned him and he told me the same old story. He knew nothing of the fate of my people, he knew them by name, of course, having met and spoken to them on many occasions before the war; he also knew where they had lived, but had no idea where they had gone, where they had taken refuge. That they were still in invaded territory was a foregone conclusion, otherwise they would have given me news of their whereabouts.

             Nothing was left of the town, he said. To complete the destruction of their shells, and to conceal their work of rapine and murder, the Germans had conscientiously set fire to what was left. All that remained of a church burned to the ground was an unharmed Madonna — there always was a Blessed Virgin left standing among the ruins, always a miracle to be cited. All the houses were wrecked save two or three forgotten or left by the enemy and almost intact save for the roof. There was the great hole, the dreadful pit in which all the victims were thrown pell-mell, murdered women, children, and old men. Over their bodies a light layer of earth was thrown, and on the top of it, heavy paving-stones, but the invaders dug them up the other day, no one knows why.

             All this was horrible, horrible, I said, but the most cruel part of it was that the horror was only mental and no longer physical, for I was prepared for it, was expecting it, my capacity for suffering and revolt had been exhausted. The refugee did not seem surprised at my callousness.

             "I am just like you," he said. "When I went back there from Holland I knew quite well that I shouldn't feel things so much, because I knew what to expect. I did not even mind when I found the greater part of my house fallen into the cellar. I should never have thought one could become so indifferent to one's own suffering. That is probably because the disaster is too great, too far-reaching and universal. A man says to himself, 'Of course so-and-so has happened!' Or maybe his understanding fails, it is too much for human understanding, something in the nature of a tremendous noise that momentarily deafens one. But there was one thing I saw that tore my very heart-strings. I had looked at everything without tears, and yet as I looked at this one thing I felt them rising to my eyes.

             "Oh, it was nothing, nothing at all. One feels ashamed, in fact, at minding so much.

             "Of course you know that every one keeps a dog in that part of the country, either for shooting or as a watch-dog, or as a pet, it's the same everywhere, of course. And when all the people were murdered or fled from the place, the dogs were left behind; they stayed in the ruined town. How they managed to find food I cannot tell; they caught rats, I suppose, and went far out into the country hunting, but they returned as quickly as they could and waited all together along the road at the entrance to the town.

             "There were two or three hundred of them of all descriptions, hounds, spaniels, sheep-dogs, fox-terriers, and tiny ridiculous pet dogs. There they were with their heads all turned in the same direction, with a look of passionate intense and melancholy expectation. Waiting! What for? Oh, that was easy to see!

             "Sometimes one of the refugees in Holland would decide to return to his town. The longing to be in his own country, to know what was left of his home, to search among the ruins, was stronger than his fear or his hate. And then sometimes, sometimes one of the dogs would recognise his master! His dog!

             "Picture the scene to yourself! With pricked-up ears and straining eyes they see far away along the road to Holland a Man coming, a Man without a peaked helmet, without a uniform. Then what excitement, painful and intense, among all the poor brutes straining their eyes to see — dogs have not very good sight — and sniffing, sniffing with their noses that are so much more reliable than their eyes. Then the leap forward, the great bound of the dog who smells his master, his mad, wild rush along the torn-up road with its great pits dug by the shells, its ruts made by the transport waggons and its lines of trenches. Then comes his loud cry of joy, as, with wagging tail, bounding feet and caressing tongue, his whole body seems one tremor of gladness!

             "That dog never leaves the man's side, for fear of losing him. For a day or two days he stays close beside him, without food if need be, and then goes away with him.

              "But you should see the others when he goes. There they are, still on the road, still at their posts. And when they see the departure of their comrade, the comrade who has found what they still desperately wait for, and will await until death overtakes them, they lift up their heads with long-drawn howls and great wails that fill the air and continue until dog and man disappear from view. Then they cease their cries, but do not stir. They are there hoping.

             "When you see this, you must weep, monsieur, weep bitterly, as they do. Please excuse me."