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IT was they who bore the main burden of suffering in this war.
In our streets and open spaces and all along the roads, in our churches, in our towns and villages, in every house, we come into contact with mothers who have lost their son or are living in an anguish more cruel than the certainty of death.
Let us try to understand their loss. They know what it means, but they do not tell the men.
Their son is taken from them at the fairest moment of his life, when their own is in its decline. When a child dies in infancy, it is as though his soul had hardly gone, as though it were lingering near the mother who brought it into the world, awaiting the time when it may return in a new form. The death which visits the cradle is not the same as that which spreads terror over the earth; but a son who dies at the age of twenty does not come back again and leaves not a gleam of hope behind him. He carries away with him all the future that his mother had remaining to her, all that she gave to him and all his promise: the pangs, anguish and smiles of birth and childhood, the joys of youth, the reward and the harvest of maturity, the comfort and the peace of old age.
He carries away with him something much more than himself: it is not his life only that comes to an end, it is numberless days that finish suddenly, a whole generation that becomes extinct, a long series of faces, of little fondling hands, of play and laughter, all of which fall at one blow on the battle-field, bidding farewell to the sunshine and reentering the earth which they will not have known. All this the eyes of our mothers perceive without understanding; and this is why, at certain times, the weight and sadness of their glance are more than any of us can bear.
And yet they do not weep as the mothers wept in former wars. All their sons disappear one by one; and we do not hear them complain or moan as in days gone by, when great sufferings, great massacres and great catastrophes were surrounded by the clamours and lamentations of the mothers.
They do not gather in the public places, they do not utter recriminations, they rail at no one, they do not rebel. They swallow their sobs and stifle their tears, as though obeying a command which they have passed from one to the other, unknown to the men.
We do not know what it is that sustains them and gives them the strength to endure the remnant of their lives. Some of them have other children; and we can understand that they transfer to these the love and the future which death has shattered. Many of them have never lost or are striving to recover their faith in the eternal promises; and here again we can understand that they do not despair, for the mothers of the martyrs did not despair either. But thousands of others, whose home is for ever deserted and whose sky is peopled by none but pale phantoms, retain the same hope as those who keep on hoping. What gives them this courage which astonishes whenever we behold it?
When the best, the most compassionate, the wisest among us meet one of these mothers who has just stealthily wiped her eyes, so that the sight of her unhappiness may not offend others who are happier, when we seek for words which, uttered amid the glaring directness of the most awful sorrow that can strike a human heart, shall not sound like odious or ridiculous lies, we can hardly find anything to say to her. We speak to her of the justice and the beauty of the cause for which her hero fell, of the immense and necessary sacrifice, of the remembrance and gratitude of mankind, of the irreality of life, which is measured not by the length of days but by the lofty height of duty and glory. We add perhaps that the dead do not die, that there are no dead, that those who are no more live nearer to our souls than when they were in the flesh and that all that we loved in them lingers in our hearts so long as it is visited by our memory and revived by our love.
But, even while we speak, we
feel the emptiness of what we say. We are conscious that all this is true only
for those whom death has not hurled into the abyss where words are nothing more
than childish babble; that the most ardent memory cannot take the place of a
dear reality which we touch with our hands or lips; and that the most exalted
thought is as nothing compared with the daily going out and coming in, the
familiar presence at meals, the morning and evening kiss, the fond embrace at
the departure and the intoxicating delight at the return. The mothers know and
feel this better than we do; and that is why they do not answer our attempts at consolation and why they listen to
them in silence, finding within
themselves other reasons for living and hoping than those which we,
vainly searching the whole horizon of human certainty and thought, try to bring
them from the outside. They resume the burden of their days without telling us
whence they derive their strength or teaching us the secret of their
self-sacrifice, their resignation and their heroism.